In February, the United States House of Representatives passed The Equality Act, which would add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to existing civil rights law. They also passed it in 2020. Different from 2020, however, is that it is much more likely to get a floor vote in the Senate this year. Still, many are worried that it will not be able to withstand the filibuster, which would ultimately require 60 votes to overcome.
Several Republican Senators have said they would support The Equality Act if it had protections for religious freedom. To be clear, they are asking for the religious freedom to discriminate. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was introduced by a Democrat and signed by President Clinton. The primary cause of this bill was to protect indigenous religious practices that were restricted by government expansion onto their land or religious practices that require the use of peyote.
On March 7, 2018, a federal appeals court ruled RFRA does not justify discrimination against LGBTQ employees. However, on October 2019, a federal judge ruled RFRA does justify denial of health insurance and medical treatment based on sex, gender identity, or termanation of pregnancy, even if those services are necessary, medically. This refusal of service also allows providers to deny services to trans people, even if their medical need is not related to the patient being transgender.
The Equality Act specifically provides LGBTQ+ people with protections against RFRA, which opponents claim is their biggest concern with the bill. For the record, religious institutions, like churches, would not have to hire LGBTQ+ people under the Equality Act, despite the misinformation campaign.
It is true the government can not infringe on the practice of religion. However, I would argue that discrimination does not fit the “practice of religion.” Discrimination is not a religious practice. It is not a sacred doctrine or ritual. Providing services to the public or employing the public means just that.
Religion must not be used in public spaces to refuse civil rights to groups of people. First, how can an investigator differentiate between a “sincerely held religious belief” and bigotry? If we allow medical providers, employers, vendors of public goods to deny access to LGBTQ+ people, should we also deny service based on “sincerely held religious belief” to people of various faith traditions, to mixed-race couples, to couples who live together before marriage? The list could go on until we have a society that even more is made for the right-wing evangelical Christian.
And that brings me to my next point. One reason I know discrimination is not a sacred practice or ritual of a religion, one way I know it is not the living out of faith, is that I am a person of faith, as are many LGBTQ+ people. Now, the number of Christians is decreasing nationally, and I would argue that the way the Church sometimes addresses issues like this is part of the reason. Nonetheless, we must reject the false binary between people of faith and LGBTQ+ people and our allies. The media loves to present the “Christian side” and the “LGBTQ+ side,” but often those overlap. Besides, Christianity is neither the only religion in the United States nor the official religion of the United States. That’s because, indeed, we have freedom from the establishment of religion.
Lastly, even Christians who may not fully support or affirm LGBTQ+ people support nondiscrimination protections. In a poll of 10,000 people, 76% of all people in the United States supported nondiscrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. That includes 85% of Democrats, 74% of independents, and 62% of Republicans. The religious group least supportive were white evangelical protestants, but they still endorsed the protections at 62%. White Catholics supported at 77% and Mormons supported at 78%.
The Equality Act, as written, is popular and well past-due. It’s time to stand up against misinformation campaigns about LGBTQ+ people and people of faith. That Venn Diagram is sometimes a circle.
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