By Katy Steinmetz
December 22, 2014

The battle over LGBT rights has moved from the chapel to the office. On Dec. 10, Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, announced plans to turbo-charge the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a federal bill that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans from workplace discrimination. A version of that legislation has failed to pass in almost every Congress since 1994. Rather than trying again in 2015, Merkley will introduce a bill that covers not only employment but also housing and public accommodations. “It can’t be right that people are thrown out of their rental housing because of their LGBT status,” Merkley says.

Polls have shown that most Americans believe it’s already illegal to fire someone–or refuse to serve them or turn them down as renters–because of their sexual orientation. But it’s not, at least not under any explicit federal law. Just 18 states and Washington, D.C., have LGBT non-discrimination laws on the books. (Three other states have laws that cover only sexual orientation.) That means in 14 states, same-sex couples could get hitched on Saturday and “it would then be legal to fire them on Monday,” says Sarah McBride, an expert on LGBT issues at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Merkley’s bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, where critics have argued that such a measure could impinge on religious freedom. But the fight will also be waged in statehouses in places like Florida and Utah. In Virginia, delegate Marcus Simon is testing landlords’ treatment of ostensibly gay and straight people inquiring about the same rental property, to rebut opponents of a housing-protection bill. “I want to make it difficult for them to hide behind that argument that this kind of discrimination doesn’t exist,” he says.

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This appears in the December 29, 2014 issue of TIME.


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