A bill that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA) to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes was introduced in Congress on Thursday.

The bill, called the Equality Act, was introduced by Senators Jeff Merkley, Tammy Baldwin, and Cory Booker in the Senate and by Representative David Cicilline in the House, and was backed by 203 more Democrats. It protects LGBT from being discriminated in public accommodations, education, federal funding, employment, and housing, among others, the same way that discrimination on the basis of race and religion in these areas are prohibited under the CRA. The bill also requires the admittance of individuals according to their gender identity in "sex-segregated facilities," such as public restrooms, rather than according to their biological sex.

The introduction of the bill comes after attempts to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)--a bill that would have set in place non-discrimination policies in employment--have failed in every Congress since 1994. However, while the ENDA was a bill specific to the context of employment, the Equality Act is a more far-reaching bill that goes beyond employment, and is involved with almost every sector of society.

"The time has come for us as a nation to be bolder and better in ensuring full rights for the LGBT community," said Merkley. "Every person deserves to live free from fear of discrimination, regardless of who they are or whom they love. Enacting the Equality Act will bring us another significant step forward in our nation's long march towards inclusion and equality. It will extend the full promise of America to every American."

Opponents of the bill argue it "would discriminate against those who do not agree with a regime of laws premised on sexually permissive understandings of human nature that deny sexual complementarity," in the words of Andrew Walker, the director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "It would thus create a new form of discrimination by socially isolating certain beliefs."

Opponents also criticize the bill's implications for religious liberty. The proposed bill does have religious exemptions mentioned in the employment section, saying that it allows "religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies to hire only individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with their religious activities." However, the bill also has a portion that states the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) cannot "be used as a defense for individuals or entities to discriminate on any basis." This means individuals would not be able to cite their religious beliefs as a basis for refusing services to same-sex couples, for example, just as one would not be able to cite religious reasons for refusing services to someone for his or her race. Republicans are likely to express strong opposition on this portion.

"Were this bill to become law, traditional Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sexual morality would immediately be treated as suspect and contrary to federal law," Walker argued.

Many believe the likelihood of the bill being passed is low, considering the current Republican majority in Congress. No Republicans have co-sponsored the bill.

The bill was introduced in Congress the same week that a committee vote was held on the First Amendment Defense Act, which aims to protect individuals and organizations from losing tax-exempt statuses or federal benefits for acting according to their religious beliefs about marriage.

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