As the House of Representatives prepared to take up historic legislation on LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections Friday, one congressman relied on a rather surprising source to defend his vote.
Speaking on the floor Friday morning, Rep. Ross Spano (R-FL) cited Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr., as part of his argument that the Equality Act — also known as H.R. 5 — would infringe on the “religious liberty” of those with anti-LGBTQ beliefs.
H.R. 5 would in fact simply extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ individuals.
“Coretta Scott King wisely said, ‘Freedom is never really won. We earn it and win it in every new generation,’” Spano said Friday. “H.R. 5 is bad for freedom. You see, it would immediately expose churches, religious schools and universities and faith-based organizations to legal liability for simply following their earnest beliefs.”
King, a civil rights icon herself, was a stalwart ally of the LGBTQ community. In 1994, she participated in the introduction of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a predecessor of the Equality Act that would have created employment protections based on sexual orientation, and, in later versions, based on gender identity.
“I see this bill as a step forward for freedom and human rights in our country and a logical extension of the Bill of Rights and the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and ‘60s,” she said during an ENDA press conference at the time. “The great promise of American democracy is that no group of people will be forced to suffer discrimination and injustice.”
Before her death in 2006, King regularly advocated for LGBTQ rights. “We share a concern about candidates who hope to win votes by bashing gay and lesbian people and pandering to the irrational fears and ignorance of their constituents,” she said at the 1996 Atlanta Gay Pride Festival. “Let’s make 1996 the year we put tolerance and human rights for all people in the forefront of our national agenda.”
Two years later, she would tell a crowd at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, “Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity, and personhood.”
She added, “Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”
The House is set to approve the Equality Act on Friday. Its sponsor, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) said in a statement earlier this month that the legislation “ensures members of the LGBTQ community can live their lives free from the fear of legal discrimination of any kind.”
“Equal treatment under the law is a founding principle of America and it’s absurd that, in 2019, members of the LGBTQ community can be fired from their jobs, denied service in a restaurant or get thrown out of their apartment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he added.
A similar bill in the Senate is likely to face widespread pushback from Republicans, who, like Spano, claim it will undermine religious liberty.