WASHINGTON — Women's rights took center stage during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on the Equality Act, a bill that would ban discrimination against LGBTQ people nationwide.
Republicans on the committee were unified in their opposition to the bill, saying it would harm women and girls by allowing transgender females to compete with biological females in sports and federal programs intended for women.
"If the Democrats determine to move this legislation forward anyway, we must acknowledge it automatically privileges the rights of biological men over the rights of biological women," said the committee's ranking Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia. "This bill will cause suffering that is far reaching and in many cases enduring."
But Democrats and expert witnesses characterized such claims that men would manipulate civil rights laws to their advantage as speculative fearmongering that turns transgender people into villains instead of victims.
"It just strains credulity to think that an individual who is undergoing such a deeply personal transformation as transitioning away from the gender assigned at birth would do so opportunistically simply because they wanted a gold medal in some track meet," said Kenji Yoshino, a constitutional law professor at New York University. "This is not what a gender identity is about."
The two-hour hearing was the first for the Equality Act, which was first introduced in 2015, the same year the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
Supporters of the measure, sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., noted that the nation's anti-discrimination laws are an inconsistent patchwork, with 21 states, including Utah, prohibiting sexual orientation or gender identity-based discrimination in housing and hiring, and 29 states providing no protections.
The Equality Act would address that inconsistency by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of other protected classes under federal laws against discrimination in housing, employment and access to credit.
The bill has more than 300 co-sponsors in Congress and is expected to pass the House, where controlling Democratic leadership has made it a top priority. Its fate in the Republican-controlled Senate is less certain.
The most prominent point of Republican opposition to the Equality Act since it was first introduced four years ago has been its potential impact on religious freedom. The bill would prevent those accused of discrimination from invoking the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a defense.
The primary concern that dominated Tuesday's hearing, however, was that the Equality Act would reverse progress made in women's rights through Title IX and other programs that have opened opportunities for women in athletics, education and business.
"If the law passes … then every right that women have fought for will cease to exist," said Julia Beck, former law and policy co-chairwoman of Baltimore's LGBTQ Commission. "HR5 (the Equality Act) is a human rights violation."
Beck, who said she supports the goal of protecting people on the basis of sex and sexual orientation, explained that gender identity has reduced female identity to a personality or feeling and ignores the distinguishing characteristic of a female body.
Dorian Lambelet Coleman, a law professor at Duke University and an expert on Title IX, said the physical and hormonal differences in men would give transgender women a distinct advantage over biological women in athletics, taking away the opportunities Title IX was intended to give biological women.
Panelists and GOP opponents to the Equality Act told a host of stories about boys intentionally scheming to be identified as transgender, transgender girls succeeding in high school track events and transgender women sexually assaulting biological women in correctional facilities and women's shelters.
But panelists dismissed the examples as outliers and hypothetical situations that didn't reflect reality in states where nondiscrimination laws are in place.
"It is using hatemongering and inflaming fear for isolated incidences of a crime being committed by someone who happens to be transgender and inflicting that prejudice onto a whole community," added Carter Brown, executive director of Black Transmen Inc. "It does nothing but divide as Americans as opposed to bringing us together as the United States."
The potential impact of the Equality Act on religious freedom also came up during Tuesday's hearing.
In his opening remarks, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., addressed the religious conflict by saying there isn't one.
"Religion is a fundamental American value and we do not have to choose between nondiscrimination and religious liberty," he said. "We have in our existing civil rights laws a roadmap in how to advance both."
Religious freedom also provided one of the more heated exchanges during the hearing when Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., asked a panelist if an Orthodox Jewish doctor whose grandparent was killed in the Holocaust should be required to work with a Nazi patient.
The panelist, Jamie Contreras, who testified about the struggle she and her wife had in finding a pediatrician for their newborn because of religious objections to their lesbian relationship, deferred to other experts, but not before Cicilline cut in to say Nazis are not a protected class under his bill.
Buck brought up a more relevant scenario when he asked panelists whether Brigham Young University or Notre Dame would be required to offer student housing to a married same-sex couple under Equality Act, and if they didn't, whether they would lose access to federal education funding.
The committee received conflicting answers.
Coleman said student housing is a public accommodation that would have to be offered to LGBTQ couples under the act. But Yoshino said he didn't agree, and that religiously affiliated schools would be exempt and the Equality Act would not alter federal laws governing education funding.
A recent survey found that while 65 percent of U.S. adults favor LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, about one-quarter (23 percent) of those supporters also say people should be able to refuse services to LGBTQ people for religious reasons. The survey by Public Religion Research Institute also found 11 percent oppose antidiscrimination protections and support service refusals, and 13 percent oppose both.