WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. House of Representatives approved Friday (May 17) an expansive gay and transgender rights bill that opponents warn would devastatingly undermine freedom of religion, conscience and speech, as well as protections for women, girls and unborn children.
The Democratic-controlled House voted 236-173 for the Equality Act, H.R. 5, marking the first time a bill to bar discrimination against people who identify as gay or transgender has gained approval in a congressional chamber.
The bill would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the classifications protected in federal civil rights law. “Sexual orientation” includes homosexuality and bisexuality, while “gender identity” refers to the way a person perceives himself regardless of his biology at birth.
Passage in the Republican-majority Senate appears unlikely, however, and the Trump administration has criticized the legislation without promising a veto.
Advocates for the Equality Act say it is needed to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in such categories as employment, housing and public accommodations — which include establishments that provide goods, services or programs. Opponents, which include some feminists, say they oppose unjust discrimination but contend the measure would — among other ill effects — coerce behavior in violation of religious beliefs, denigrate Christian morality, roll back women’s rights and threaten pro-life laws.
The Equality Act goes so far as to eliminate the use of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as a possible protection in cases covered by the measure. In 1993, Congress passed RFRA nearly unanimously as a corrective to a damaging Supreme Court ruling, and President Clinton signed it into law. RFRA requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore expressed his disappointment the House “would pass a bill as gravely misguided as the Equality Act.”
“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 Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in written comments.
“This extreme legislation went even further by eliminating religious liberty protections and enacting what would be a 50-state ban on faith-based foster care and adoption providers,” he said. “In the name of equality, it would bully those who dare to dissent with the demands of the Sexual Revolution. We will continue to work to ensure that such a bill does not become law.”
Kristen Waggoner — senior vice president of the U.S. legal division of Alliance Defending Freedom — said the legislation “undermines human dignity by threatening the fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and conscience that the First Amendment guarantees for every citizen.”
The Equality Act would “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,” she said in a written statement.
It also would erode equality for women “by denying female athletes fair competition in sports, depriving women of business opportunities designed for them, and forcing them to share private, intimate spaces with men who identify as female.” Waggoner said.
Advocates for LGBT rights applauded the House action.
“Today’s historic vote is a major milestone for equality and sends a powerful and profound message to [LGBT] people, especially [LGBT] youth, that the U.S. House has their backs,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in a written release. “No one’s rights should depend on which side of a state or city line they live on, and today we took a giant step forward in our journey toward full equality.”
HRC is the country’s largest LGBT civil rights organization.
Among the concerns regarding the Equality Act cited by the ERLC’s Moore and 11 other organizational leaders in a May 7 letter to House members:
— Houses of worship and other religious institutions could be considered “public accommodations” and become subject to government rules in violation of their beliefs.
— Faith-based adoption and foster care agencies that refuse to place children with same-sex couples would be crippled.
— Religious colleges and universities could have their ability to hire according to their beliefs and their students’ ability to receive federal aid threatened.
— Religious adherents would be coerced to participate in weddings and funerals that compromise their convictions.
The pro-life Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List also warned the Equality Act could expand abortion rights by its inclusion of “pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition” in the definition of “sex.” At least one federal circuit court has held “the term ‘related medical condition’ includes an abortion,” according to the SBA List.
“As written, [the Equality Act] could roll back decades of pro-life policy on the state and federal level, as well as forcing health care workers and entities to participate in abortion,” said Marilyn Musgrave, SBA List’s vice president of government affairs, in a written statement.
Nearly half of the 50 states already have protections against LGBT discrimination. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws explicitly banning discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” according to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP). Two more states interpret existing law as prohibiting such discrimination, and one state bars discrimination based only on “sexual orientation.” Twenty-six states have no explicit prohibitions.
“Sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” or SOGI, policies in some states have especially affected professionals who serve at weddings — such as cake designers, florists and photographers who disagree with same-sex marriage. Some have lost their businesses as a result of government rules.
Adoption agencies, religious colleges, ministries for the needy, businesses and churches are among the organizations that have faced legal action for their commitment to marriage as a male-female institution, their determination to maintain policies in keeping with their beliefs, and their willingness to protect privacy by preventing people of the opposite sex from using restrooms and locker rooms.
In a May 13 email, a senior Trump administration official told the Washington Blade, a newspaper focused on LGBT issues, that the White House “absolutely opposes discrimination of any kind and supports the equal treatment of all; however, this bill in its current form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.”
In the May 17 roll call, eight Republicans voted with Democrats for the bill: Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana; Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida; Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania; Will Hurd of Texas; John Katko, Tom Reed and Elise Stefanik, all of New York; and Greg Walden of Oregon.
MAP describes itself as a think tank that provides research to help hasten equality for LGBT people.