New legislation that bans discrimination against gay and transgender people would cripple Americans’ freedom of conscience rights, Christian and conservative leaders say.
On March 13, Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives introduced the Equality Act, a proposal that would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the classifications protected in federal civil rights law. “Sexual orientation” includes homosexuality and bisexuality, while “gender identity” refers to the way a person perceives himself regardless of his biology at birth.
Advocates for the bill say it is needed to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in such categories as employment, housing and public accommodations – which includes establishments that provide goods, services or programs. Opponents say they oppose unjust discrimination but contend the measure would denigrate Christian morality and coerce behavior in violation of religious beliefs.
Both versions of the Equality Act go so far as to eliminate the use of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as a possible protection in cases covered by the measure. Enacted in 1993, RFRA requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise.
The Equality Act – first introduced in 2015 – appears certain to gain approval in the Democratic-controlled House. The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., has 239 cosponsors in a chamber where only 218 votes are needed for passage. Only one of the cosponsors is a Republican.
The Senate – where Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is the chief sponsor – has 46 cosponsors. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is the lone GOP cosponsor.
If the Equality Act were to become law, “its sweeping effects on religious liberty, free speech and freedom of conscience would be both historic and also chilling,” said Andrew Walker, senior fellow in Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “In short, the Equality Act equates Christian ethics with hatred and bigotry.
“We believe all persons, including those who identify as LGBT, are made in God’s image and deserve respect, kindness and neighborliness,” Walker wrote in a March 11 post for The Gospel Coalition. “But this truth does not necessitate Christian capitulation to the sexual revolution.”
If enacted, the bill would cast “into the dustbin of history” the ideas “that marriage is a complementary union of a man and a woman, and that male and female are immutable, biological realities,” he wrote.
Kristen Waggoner – senior vice president of the U.S. legal division of Alliance Defending Freedom – said Americans “simply deserve better than the profound inequality proposed by this intolerant, deceptively titled legislation.”
The Equality Act would “undermine human dignity by threatening the fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and conscience that the First Amendment guarantees for every citizen,” Waggoner said in a written statement. “Like similar state and local laws, it would force Americans to participate in events and speak messages that violate their core beliefs.”
Emilie Kao, director of the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, said the bill “would empower government authorities to open every girl’s locker room and sports team to males who self-identify as female; pressure doctors to administer puberty-blocking hormones to children over the objections of their parents; and punish Americans who fail to engage in government-compelled speech.”
“Congress should resist the deeply authoritarian impulse that this bill represents,” she said in written comments.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tweeted upon the Equality Act’s introduction, “No American should face discrimination based on who they are or who they love.” In a March 13 news conference, she said, “[W]e look forward to a swift, strong and successful vote on this bill.”
“Sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” or SOGI, policies in some states have especially affected professionals who serve at weddings – such as cake designers, florists and photographers who disagree with same-sex marriage. Some have lost their businesses as a result of government rules.
Adoption agencies, religious colleges, ministries for the needy, businesses and churches are among the organizations that have faced legal action for their commitment to marriage as a male-female institution, their determination to maintain policies in keeping with their beliefs and their willingness to protect privacy by preventing people of the opposite sex from using restrooms and locker rooms.
Some evangelical Christian leaders have sought to find a way to protect both “sexual orientation/gender identity” and religious liberty by including religious exemptions in SOGI laws. The National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have endorsed such proposals.
More than 20 leaders of Southern Baptist institutions signed a December 2016 document that rejected such an approach, however. The statement, issued by the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, said even “narrowly crafted” SOGI laws “threaten fundamental freedoms, and any ostensible protections for religious liberty appended to such laws are inherently inadequate and unstable.”
Nearly half of the 50 states already have protections against LGBT discrimination. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws explicitly banning discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” according to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP). Two more states interpret existing law as prohibiting such discrimination, and one state bars discrimination based only on “sexual orientation.” Twenty-six states have no explicit prohibitions.
MAP describes itself as a think tank that provides research to help hasten equality for LGBT people.