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What would the Equality Act mean for employers?

| Mar 5, 2021 | Business law |

It looks as though the Equality Act could finally successfully make its way through both houses of Congress and be signed into law. The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill last month.

Members of Congress and their supporters who have tried in the past and failed to pass the legislation are optimistic because of the gains made by Democrats in the Senate in November and President Biden’s promise to make it one of his first legislative priorities. He said, “Every person should be treated with dignity and respect, and this bill represents a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all.”

What would the legislation do if it becomes law?

The primary purpose of the Equality Act is to make discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity illegal under federal law. It’s essentially an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It applies to multiple areas, including housing, education, public accommodations and employment.

Plaintiffs in discrimination cases have tried, with mixed results, to claim protection under the broad umbrella of “sex” in current federal law. If the Equality Act becomes law, gay and transsexual people will have specific protections against discrimination.

One reason the Equality Act has been controversial in some circles and is largely opposed by Republicans in Congress is that it would override the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). That law, passed in 1993, allowed business owners and others to deny service to people based on their own religious beliefs. It’s been perhaps most notoriously used by bakers who refuse to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

What about Pennsylvania’s laws?

Pennsylvania state law doesn’t provide protected status based on sexual orientation or gender identity. However, some 40 local jurisdictions in the state do. The Equality Act, if it succeeds, would be the law of the land.

Most employers simply want to find and support the best employees and don’t knowingly discriminate. However, it’s essential to know and understand the local, state and federal laws. Noncompliance, even if unintentional, can be costly in time, money and reputation. If you’re being accused of discrimination, it’s essential to consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

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