Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of AU's Church & State magazine.
Americans United began closely monitoring the activities of Religious Right groups around 1980. Since these groups spent much of their time attacking LGBTQ rights, Church & State started running stories about the anti-LGBTQ bills the groups were trying to pass in Congress and state legislatures.
At that point, our coverage of LGBTQ issues was more descriptive. A story in the September 1986 issue about the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a Georgia law banning consensual acts of sodomy between adults (Bowers v. Hardwick) noted that it might have implications for other issues, such as access to birth control. In that same issue, a short item appeared about how Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago had used his political influence to sink an LGBTQ-rights bill in the city.
Things continued in this vein into the 1990s. But the issue was becoming so prominent and had become such a focal point for the Religious Right that AU soon knew we had to say more. A turning point occurred in October 1999, when Rob Boston (now editor of Church & State) wrote a comprehensive story about the Religious Right’s attacks on the LGBTQ community. According to Rob, “There was no way anyone could read it and walk away thinking AU was neutral on the issue or merely engaging in factual reporting.” Our members reacted well.
When marriage equality became a national issue, AU filed briefs in major cases. Our attorneys argued that two people of the same gender who want to marry should not be subject to discrimination based on someone else’s religious views. After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of equality, AU represented a same-sex couple who had been denied a marriage license in Alabama and a couple in West Virginia who were harassed when they applied for a license – both in the name of “religious freedom.”
Fast forward to May 8, when AU endorsed the Equality Act, a bill that would provide clear, consistent protections for LGBTQ people nationwide across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs and jury service.
Why did we decide to mobilize all of you, our thousands of members and supporters, to advocate on its behalf? In part, it was a straightforward decision because of the bill’s explicit language prohibiting the misuse of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to override the bill’s protections. Please take a moment to celebrate this language and to recognize that your support and advocacy over the years is helping to establish this sort of clause as the norm in non-discrimination legislation.
The frontlines of the Religious Right’s efforts today to redefine “religious freedom” for the purposes of imposing their views on the rest of us is the LGBTQ equality debate. If we want to put an end to this strategy, we must support critical legislation like this that insists on holding our country accountable to the American ideals of both equality for all and religious freedom.
But at the end of the day, we’re supporting the Equality Act because the bill is fundamentally about keeping religion and government separate. The Religious Right has been demonizing members of the LGBTQ community for decades. Now, aided and abetted by President Donald Trump, they cite a narrow interpretation of the Bible as an excuse to roll back the hard-fought protections the LGBTQ community has won. Americans United exists to prevent any American from being forced to support someone else’s religion or live under its rules – so yes, this is our fight.
The Equality Act takes our issue out of a more cerebral and abstract realm and into the sphere of real human lives – our own and our family, friends and neighbors’ daily lived experiences.
A large number of national and state organizations, faith leaders, businesses and members of Congress have all endorsed the Equality Act. The energy behind the bill makes it a perfect vehicle for telling the story of why church-state separation is so critical to our country’s commitment to equality. We are taking full advantage of social media to tell this story to the next generation of leaders, who are overwhelmingly in favor of LGBTQ equality and also one of AU’s key target audiences.
Well-known preacher and activist the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II talks about the need for another moral fusion movement, like that which enabled the civil rights struggles to succeed. AU is now part of today’s moral fusion movement pushing hard to pass this landmark legislation.
I hope you’ll join me in being loud and proud in support of the Equality Act.