WASHINGTON -- The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred places of public accommodation -- like movie theaters and restaurants -- from discriminating against people on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. Lunch counters, for example, would no longer be able to turn away someone because she happened to be black.
But sex wasn't included in the protected categories. And it still isn't. In other words, it remains legal in some places for a business to refuse to serve a woman solely on the basis of gender.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) are introducing legislation Thursday that would amend the Civil Rights Act to make it more inclusive. Most notably, it would add sexual orientation and gender identity protections, meaning LGBT people would be protected from discrimination in credit, education, employment, housing, federal financial assistance, jury service and public accommodations -- just like everyone else.
The legislation also would close other longstanding gaps, including the exclusion of sex from the areas of public accommodations, state and local government services and federal funding, according to a preview provided to The Huffington Post.
Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women's Law Center, said that when the Civil Rights Act was drafted, the focus was on segregation in public places.
"As a result, the protection against sex discrimination in public places like stores and hotels and restaurants has been piecemeal," Martin explained. "Lots of states prohibit sex discrimination in those places, but they all define it differently and some states don't do it at all. This would be a really important step forward that would have real significance for women."
This change would mean that a car dealership couldn't charge a woman more than a man, simply because she's a woman. Or a salon couldn't charge men and women different prices for the exact same haircut.
The Equality Act also would widen the definition of what constitutes a public accommodation. Right now, the list reflects what was popular in 1964, specifying that places like a "lunch counter" or a "soda fountain" can't discriminate. The new bill would broaden the categories and cover nearly every entity that provides goods, services or programs.
Merkley and Cicilline, joined by a handful of other Democratic lawmakers and civil rights leaders, will officially introduce the legislation Thursday in a press conference in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room of the Capitol, paying homage to the president who signed the Civil Rights Act into law.