July/August 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

The U.S. House of Representatives took an important step toward securing LGBTQ rights May 17 by passing the Equality Act, landmark legislation that would protect members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination in key areas such as employment, housing, public accommodations, public education, federal funding, credit and financing, and jury service.

The act (H.R. 5) passed the House in a 236-173 bipartisan vote. Americans United, which supported the legislation, hailed the vote.

“Today, our country moved closer to fulfilling our promise of freedom and equality for all with the House passage of the Equality Act,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser in a statement to the media. “This landmark legislation provides crucial, nationwide protections for LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and people of color – all of whom are frequent targets of discrimination because of who they are, who they love or what they look like and what they believe. Just as important, the Equality Act makes clear that religious freedom cannot be misused to undermine these protections.”

Today, our country moved closer to fulfilling our promise of freedom and equality for all with the House passage of the Equality Act. This landmark legislation provides crucial, nationwide protections for LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and people of color – all of whom are frequent targets of discrimination because of who they are, who they love or what they look like and what they believe. Just as important, the Equality Act makes clear that religious freedom cannot be misused to undermine these protections.

~ Rachel Laser, AU President and CEO

Continued Laser, “The Equality Act is a critically needed check on the Religious Right’s weaponization of ‘religious freedom’ as a license to discriminate. Time and again the safety and security of the LGBTQ community is threatened by the Religious Right’s desire to move our country backwards. Due to grossly inadequate legal protections and all-too-common government policies that allow for religious refusals where protections do exist, they continue to succeed. Enough is enough.”

She concluded, “We cannot waste this historic moment. We urge the U.S. Senate to act swiftly so the millions of people who suffer because of discrimination can experience a new day of equality. Religious freedom is guaranteed in our Constitution. So is equality. This bill delivers on both of those promises.”

Prior to the debate, Americans Uni­ted pointed out that millions of Americans already enjoy protections like those guaranteed in the legislation. The Equality Act, AU noted, would simply extend them to members of the LGBTQ community.

Equality Act Supporters Rally at Capitol Building

(PHOTO: Americans United staffers join allies to rally in support of the Equality Act at the Capitol Building on May 17.)

Religious Right groups were furious over the vote. Prior to it, they spent months spreading their usual mix of half-truths and hysteria, which they ratcheted up after the act’s House passage.

Days before the vote, the American Family Association released a short video featuring Tim Wildmon, president of the group, and two of his associates. Wildmon said of the bill, “It is poison, and it’s going to basically destroy religious liberties and religious freedom.”

Wildmon also claimed, falsely, that the bill contains no exemptions for houses of worship. As AU pointed out, this is disingenuous because the Equality Act would simply extend the benefits of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which already includes protections and exemptions for houses of worship, to LGBTQ Americans.

At the Family Research Council, Mary Beth Waddell, a senior legislative assistant for the group, asserted that the Equality Act “would massively overhaul our federal civil rights framework in order to mandate special privileges in the private sector for sexual orientation and gender identity” and insisted that the bill “undercuts our foundational freedom of religion.” (In a weak attempt to be clever, Waddell labeled the bill the “[I]n-Equality Act.”)

Americans United countered that being free from discrimination is hardly a “special privilege.” In fact, the bill merely adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes that already exist in the Civil Rights Act and would extend to members of the LGBTQ community the same protections that many other Americans take for granted.

Focus on the Family (FOF) framed its objection to the act in specifically religious terms, asserting, “Christians believe what Genesis describes and Jesus taught: God created two types of humans – male and female.”

The group went on to insist, “We understand that Christian teaching about marriage has profound spiritual significance, as the husband and wife relationship reflects the relationship between Christ and His Church. … [T]he ‘Equality Act’ would teach that Christian thinking about male-female differences, marriage, parenting, family and sexuality are rooted in prejudice – rather than in years of wisdom, reason and biblical exegesis.”

FOF was basically insisting that the government shouldn’t pass the Equality Act because it offends FOF’s narrow interpretation of Christianity – hardly a persuasive argument in a nation that’s not a theocracy.

Kristen Waggoner, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, asserted that the Equality Act “would also force Americans to participate in events and speak messages that violate their core beliefs, all in the name of an ‘equality’ that tolerates no dissenters.”

But that’s not what the act would do. It’s designed (in part) to make it clear that owners of businesses are expected to serve the entire public, a concept that has been ingrained in U.S. law for decades. Restaurants, hotels or stores cannot summarily refuse to serve people on the basis of race or religion, and many Americans agree that it’s time to extend protections to members of the LGBTQ community.

Prior to the vote, Franklin Graham, James Dobson and a bevy of other Religious Right leaders sent a letter to House and Senate leaders arguing, “Not only is it incompatible with God’s Word (the Bible) and the historic teaching of the church, but the Equality Act is also riddled with threats to religious liberty and the sanctity of human life.”

The Graham/Dobson missive was a naked appeal for Congress to legislate based on what the Religious Right believes is “God’s word” or “his­toric” church teachings. As such, it was hardly persuasive to millions of Americans, with lots of Christians among them. Many religious leaders disagree that the act violates “God’s word” and have called for passage of the legislation.

After the bill passed the House, Dobson went completely around the bend. In a column, he compared the passage of the act to the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding slavery and wrote, “Let me speak candidly and passionately to people of faith throughout these United States of America. We must not remain silent as our historic liberties are gutted by Democrats and their friends in the LGBT movement. They will enslave us if they prevail.”

To observers at Americans United, it was a familiar pattern: Religious Right groups frequently oppose any attempt to expand rights to the LGBTQ community, and often make extreme claims that are later shown to by hysterical and fallacious. Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding marriage equality in 2015, the Religious Right insisted that pastors would be forced to officiate at weddings for same-sex couples. Four years have passed, and that hasn’t happened once.

Days before the vote, Laser made a short video for Americans United, outlining what’s at stake.

“Americans United and our thousands of members across the country are eager to bring our full support to stop the Religious Right from weap­onizing religious freedom,” Laser said. “We strongly urge Con­gress to pass the Equality Act.”

While House passage was a true milestone – versions of the bill have been introduced over the past 20 years and have never cleared that chamber – much work lies ahead. The U.S. Senate is in Republican hands and isn’t like to give the measure serious consideration.

In addition, President Donald Trump has come out against the act. He promised during the 2016 campaign to be an ally to the LGBTQ community but has repeatedly pursued policies designed to squelch their rights. Most recently, Trump announced the release of new rules that will allow health care workers to cite “religious freedom” as an excuse to deny care to LGBTQ patients. (“Bad Medicine,” this issue.)

Prior to the House vote, an unnamed senior administration official told The Washington Blade that the administration won’t support the Equality Act because “this bill in its cur­rent form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights” – in other words, Trump is putting the interests of his Religious Right allies ahead of the LGBTQ community.

“We’re disgusted, but certainly not surprised, by Donald Trump’s announcement that he opposes the Equality Act, which is supported by seven in ten Americans and more than two hundred major businesses,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement issued May 13. “By opposing this common-sense civil rights legislation, Donald Trump is ensuring that LGBTQ people remain at risk of being fired or denied housing in a majority of states.”LGBTQ rights groups were quick to respond.