What just happened?
Next week the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the radical Equality Act. The bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to “prohibit discrimination” on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
As Alliance Defending Freedom notes, this legislation could be used to restrict the religious freedom of churches and religious nonprofits, including religious schools; set back protections for women in athletics, at work, and in private spaces like showers and locker rooms; and inhibit the ability of everyday Americans to live in accord with their beliefs.
The House passed the Equality Act in 2019, but the act did not to receive a vote in the Senate. It is expected to pass again in the House and may pass in the Senate, which is split evenly between the two dominant parties, and Vice President Kamala Harris is empowered by her office to break ties.
What is the Equality Act?
The Equality Act would amend two landmark civil-rights laws—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act—to change the definition of “sex.” Instead of referring to biological men and women, the redefined word would also cover sexual orientation and gender identity for the purposes of employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, and federal programs.
According to the bill, “sexual orientation” means homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality, and “gender identity” means the gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, or other characteristics of an individual, regardless of the individual’s sex at birth.
The bill says explicitly: “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.” (See also 9 Things You Should Know About the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.)
Who supports the Equality Act?
Support for the Equality Act is embedded in the language of the Democratic Party platform: “Democrats will always fight to end discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.” President Joe Biden has vowed to pass the bill within his first 100 days in office.
In the House, the bill has 240 cosponsors, including every Democrat and three Republicans (Brian K. Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, John Katko of New York, and Jennifer Gonzalez–Colon of Puerto Rico). In the Senate, the bill has 46 cosponsors, including 45 Democrats and one Republican (Susan Collins of Maine).
A number of large corporations have endorsed the bill, including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Coca–Cola, eBay, Facebook, Google, Johnson & Johnson, MasterCard, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Philip Morris International, UPS, United Airlines, Verizon, and Wells Fargo.
Who opposes the Equality Act?
In 2019, a coalition of 86 faith-based nonprofits, religious entities, and institutions of higher education sent a letter to Congress opposing the Equality Act.
Almost all Republicans in the U.S. Senate are also expected to vote against the bill. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin also opposed the bill in 2019.
Didn’t the Supreme Court already decide this issue last year?
Last year, in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the phrase “because of . . . sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was meant to protect employees from discrimination because of sexual orientation, as well as whether the word “sex” meant “gender identity” and included “transgender status.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that states, “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Nowhere in the statute does it say that “sex” is intended to include sexual orientation or gender identity. Congress has also repeatedly rejected any expansion of the term to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the Civil Rights Act. But the court ruled that employers who fire someone for being homosexual or transgender violate Title VII. The decision was 6–3, with Justices Gorsuch and Roberts joining the four liberal justices. Justice Gorsuch wrote the majority’s opinion.
Title VII only covers workplaces with 15 employees or more, which provided an exemption for many small businesses. The Equality Act would strip away that protection.
Gorsuch noted in the majority opinion that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) raises the question of employers’ ability to claim religious exceptions to their hiring practices. “Because RFRA operates as a kind of super statute, displacing the normal operation of other federal laws, it might supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases,” he wrote. “But how these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases.”
The Equality Act would settle that issue in favor of LGBTQ rights over religious freedom.
Why should Christians be concerned about the Equality Act?
As Andrew T. Walker wrote in an article for TGC, “The bill represents the most invasive threat to religious liberty ever proposed in America. Given that it touches areas of education, public accommodation, employment, and federal funding, were it to pass, its sweeping effects on religious liberty, free speech, and freedom of conscience would be both historic and also chilling.”
“Virtually no area of American life would emerge unscathed from the Equality Act’s reach,” Walker added. “No less significant would be the long-term effects of how the law would shape the moral imagination of future generations.”
Twenty-four states have similar laws, and the consequences for residents of those states have been disastrous, says Monica Burke, research assistant in the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. “These policies are not being used to promote equality,” Burke says. “Instead, they are being used as a blunt-force weapon to ban disagreement on marriage and sexuality by punishing dissenters.”
Some of the examples cited by Burke include a teacher in Virginia who was fired for failing to use a female student’s preferred masculine pronouns, and a professor in Ohio who was disciplined for doing the same. A homeless shelter for abused women in Alaska has been sued for refusing to admit a biological male, and in California, Illinois, and Vermont, foster parents are expected to provide children experiencing gender dysphoria with transition-affirming therapies, despite parents’ medical or moral objections.
The Equality Act could make single-sex schools and clubs illegal. It would create an abortion mandate, since hospitals and clinics would be treated as public accommodations.
“Every human being ought to be treated with dignity, but placing sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in this kind of legislation would have harmful consequences,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and TGC Council member in 2019.
“This legislation would make the situation worse in this country,” Moore aded, “both in terms of religious freedom and in terms of finding ways for Americans who disagree to work together for the common good.”