By Claire Davidson Miller
As a college student and a Youth Organizing Fellow with Americans United, I came of age as an activist during the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was elected president, I was a senior in high school, and he was in office throughout the majority of my college years. Trump was our president when I attended my first protest, signed my first petition and participated in my first lobby meeting. My activism developed with his racism, sexism and xenophobia constantly in the background.
Of course, becoming an activist in such a setting was frequently demoralizing. I quickly became cynical and never had the privilege of the idealism and optimism that tend to characterize many budding activists. Yet, there was also a benefit to becoming an activist in the Trump era: I was surrounded by countless like-minded people. The Trump administration woke many Americans up to the pervasive hatred in our society. Even people who did not consider themselves to be activists in a pre-Trump era began taking action.
Now that Trump is out of office, however, how will these people spend the next four years? Will they continue to fight the hatred that boils just below the surface in our country? Or will they breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the Trump era and return to business as usual?
After the trauma of the past four years, a friendly administration is ample reason to celebrate. It is not, however, an excuse to stop fighting. Rather, we need to take advantage of the next four years – and particularly the next two, after which a Congress supportive of expanding civil rights protections is not guaranteed – to pass legislation whose impact will last far longer than the four-year-long Biden administration. We may feel safe for now, but we need to work to put systems in place that will guarantee our safety no matter who wins the Oval Office in 2024, 2028 or ever.
There are two particularly important pieces of legislation that supporters of the separation of church and state need to work to pass in this 117th Congress: the Equality Act and the Do No Harm Act.
The Equality Act, first introduced in 2015 and reintroduced last Thursday, would amend existing civil rights laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics and fill other gaps in our civil rights laws. Currently, only 31 states have outlawed discrimination against LGBTQ communities, and few LGBTQ protections exist at the national level. And although the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia made clear that LGBTQ workers are protected against employment discrimination on the national level, the Equality Act would vastly expand this protection to include other domains, such as housing, credit, education and more. The Equality Act also expands federal non-discrimination protections for people of color, women and others in the two key areas: It protects people from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity in places like retail stores and shopping malls, and it protects against sex-based discrimination in government services and federally-funded programs.
The Do No Harm Act (DNHA) which is expected to be reintroduced soon, would ensure that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) can’t be used to harm others or take away their rights. The Do No Harm Act clarifies the intent of RFRA to ensure the law is used only for its original purpose, which was to protect minority religious expression from government overreach. In today’s climate, the Do No Harm Act has the ability to ensure religion can’t be used to undermine LGBTQ rights, access to reproductive health care and other crucial rights.
Taken together, the Equality Act and the Do No Harm Act would help us achieve an unprecedented level of equality in the United States. Imagine a world in which no LGBTQ person could be denied housing because of who they love; no Sikhs, Muslims or Jews could be turned away from a federally funded job for being the “wrong” religion; and no person could be denied access to reproductive health care by their employer in the name of religion.
Many of us have spent the past four years of the Trump administration fighting for only our most basic rights and protections. Now that we have a friendly administration, however, it’s time to be bold. We must be unafraid to expand our vision of equality, beyond what we previously thought possible, and we must be unafraid to fight for expanded civil rights protections for all groups.
Claire Davidson Miller, a senior at Brown University, is a member of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship.