There have been some calls recently to scrap piecemeal rights bills like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Some have called for adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal Civil Rights Act. Some have suggested a separate federal LGBT rights bill, but an omnibus bill that contains all of the bits and pieces of discrimination that we experience, such as discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and the others areas now covered by civil rights law for race, national origin, sex and religion.
LGBT political and advocacy leaders have long ignored these calls on the grounds that such legislation could never pass because of political objections by large civil rights organizations who fear opening the Civil Rights Act to amendment by conservatives, and because of the pragmatic belief that incremental bills are more likely to pass.
The brick wall of opposition to such proposals cracked last night. Last night, eQuality Giving held the last of a series of panels in its "virtual convention" for full LGBT legal equality. Representative Jared Polis of Colorado said that he supported the idea of an omnibus LGBT rights bill, and called for suggestions about what the bill should contain.
This is the first time a national-level gay politician has said this. (I note that Senator Gillibrand last year said she would support amending the Civil Rights Act.) It would completely change the face of LGBT political advocacy, because demanding a comprehensive series of rights requires a totally different strategy from begging for a single right to employment filled with exceptions. Our advocacy would have to completely shift gears. Oh wait, it's April Fools' Day! But he said it yesterday, so I think he's serious.
Rep. Polis said that an an omnibus bill could be a major rallying point for all of our community, especially since ENDA and other LGBT rights legislation isn't winnable now anyway. He said he would look to include most, if not all, of the concerns already addressed in legislation, and to include new ideas not yet addressed. He noted that the Civil Rights Act granted rights across the board. Incremental progress is also possible, but it is important to talk about what success looks like. He said "it looks like treating gay and lesbian Americans like every other American."
Rep. Polis, you've got to bone up on our community. Our community is more than "gay and lesbian Americans." Let me not get too testy here, but I reserve my right to yell and scream about this later.
He was asked about a marriage component to the bill. He said that no specific decisions have been made yet, but noted that the definition of marriage is up to the states and that there is "no federal definition of marriage." He said that a federal definition of marriage would require a Constitutional amendment, and he doesn't plan to be offering a Constitutional amendment. You can hear the whole panel here (Polis's discussion on the omnibus bill begins at about 7:00.)
I beg to differ on that last point, because even if he is technically right that there's no federal "definition" that defines it for the purpose of an individual state, there is the little matter of a federal law defining marriage for purposes of federal law as not including same-sex marriages, and permitting states to ignore legal same-sex marriages. Maybe you don't call that a "definition," but you can hardly ignore it in discussing the federal role in marriage definitions.
Okay, so the talking points need a bit of work. But the idea of an omnibus bill appeals to me, as I've discussed before, because the whole idea of whittling down Bella Abzug's and Ed Koch's original legislation, to include gays in the federal Civil Rights Act, was that incremental progress would move much faster. I'm sorry, but the "incremental progress" method has been a dismal failure. It's simply encouraged our enemies to ask for more and more of the loaf, and weak-kneed Congressmembers have used this to emphasize the political vunerability that our own position signalled. We've discussed this on Bilerico many times, with discussions from David Mixner, Juan and Ken Ahonen-Jover, and Tif Fernandez.
More on various versions of an omnibus LGBT rights bill can be found here. These have been drafted by some legal heavyweights, and they're worth serious consideration.
It sounds as if Representative Polis is interested in continuing to pursue the incremental track, while at the same time pushing an omnibus bill. That strategy is new. In the past, the discussion has been an either/or "Incremental Progress" or "Full Equality" argument. I think pursuing both at the same time may be an excellent interim strategy because it uses both the hammer and the pincers, and could give us the traction we've been missing.
Representative Polis is soliciting suggestions on his "Fearless Campaign" website.