On May 14, 1974, a spunky U.S. representative from New York named Bella Abzug introduced the first version of what we now know as the Equality Act. Even though the bill was co-sponsored by another New York representative and was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, the bill had little support and never saw the light of day. For the next 45 years, the Equality Act, in one form or another, found its way back in front of Congress.
In 2019, the Equality Act passed the House for the first time. Even though it died in the Senate, the bill returned in early 2021 and the House passed it again. However, the bill is once again all but dead in the Senate.
Though President Biden failed to keep his promise to pass the Equality Act in his first 100 days in office, one would be hard-pressed to argue that he abandoned LGBTQ causes. In the first few months of his first term, President Biden appointed Rachel Levine as assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (the first transgender woman to serve in such a high office), and issued various memorandums, executive orders, statements, and more that demonstrate the Biden administration is an ally for gender identity and transgender issues.
As of summer 2021, a White House spokesperson said President Biden “remains committed to seeing this legislation passed as quickly as possible.”
WHAT WOULD BE THE EFFECTS OF THE EQUALITY ACT?
If passed, the Equality Act will amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act (specifically, titles II, III, IV, VI, VII, and IX) to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Equality Act contains some good aspects, but there are even more negative elements. In addition to stripping away protection that religious institutions enjoy from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the bill would deal a catastrophic blow to women’s rights.
In January, Abigail Shrier of the Wall Street Journal lamented the negative impact the Equality Act would have on women’s equality: “Decades of women’s achievement and opportunity rolled back by executive fiat. . . . Women’s rights turn out to be cheap and up for grabs. Who will voice objection?”
One organization, Feminists in Struggle (or FIST; feministstruggle.org), issued a blistering statement about the Equality Act. It said, in part,
The bill as currently written would eliminate sex as a protected category under federal law—a move that would have dire consequences for the sex-based rights of women and girls. This redefinition would also erase the basis for same-sex attraction, undermining the very protections for sexual orientation that the Equality Act claims to enshrine. . . . By making self-declaration what determines whether someone is considered male or female, the Equality Act would radically remake U.S. law, making gender self-identity the criteria for accessing all female facilities, being housed in female domestic violence shelters and prisons, competing in female sports, representing female people, and defining “same-sex” orientation.
The Equality Act would also expand the list of what would and wouldn’t be considered a “public accommodation.” The bill defines “public accommodation” as “including restaurants, senior centers, stores, places of or establishments that provide entertainment, health care facilities, shelters, government offices, youth service providers including adoption and foster care providers, and transportation.” This means “public accommodations” could be interpreted to include religious institutions, thereby making it illegal for them to be misaligned in practice with government regulations regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.
Similarly, the bill would also prohibit organizations from stopping transgender men and transgender women from using restrooms, locker rooms, and dressing rooms that aligned with their sense of gender identity.
The ability of religious institutions to provide services to their local communities might also be compromised. According to a Religion News Service article, a Jewish organization that provides free and affordable lunches for school children of low-income families claims that it legally wouldn’t be able to continue providing such meals because, theologically, they don’t agree with same-sex marriage.
Students at theologically conservative religious schools might be denied federal aid if the school applies its beliefs about marriage to their employment and admissions practices. It’s conceivable those same schools would also lose their accreditation (which is an extension of the government through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation). If such schools lost their funding and accreditation, they wouldn’t be viewed as non-profit anymore. At that point, a school could be interpreted as a for-profit entity and no longer have the religious exemptions they’re currently afforded.
It’s easy to see how the Equality Act doesn’t live up to its own name—equality. A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, “The Equality Act was a starting point for negotiations, and in its current form, it cannot pass. That’s why there are ongoing discussions among senators and stakeholders about a path forward.”
Dr. Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Law—and a politically liberal supporter of same-sex marriage—also opposes the Equality Act. In 2019, he told the National Review, “[It] is not a good-faith attempt to reconcile competing interests. It is an attempt by one side to grab all the disputed territory and to crush the other side.”
In a 2017 book, LGBTQ rights expert and Rutgers University Law School professor Dr. Carlos Ball warned that the culture war progressive activists are fighting actually are eroding First Amendment principles that afforded LGBTQ individuals their rights. Some congressional leaders have put forth compromise bills such as the Fairness for All Act that would safeguard freedoms for both religious institutions and LBGTQ people in the civil square. However, just as the Equality Act won’t pass the Senate, the Fairness for All Act cannot pass the House.
So, why won’t our elected leaders work toward a truly bipartisan legislative solution that would pass both the House and Senate? It’s because, for some Republicans and Democrats, it isn’t about whether the Equality Act passes or not; rather, it’s all about a photo opportunity, a chance to blame others, and adding another component to their re-election bid. Public perception is vitally important to the architects of culture wars.
Here’s another catch—even though the bill hasn’t passed yet, versions of the Equality Act could find their way into your state, county, or city laws.
HOW SHOULD CHRISTIAN ORGANIZATIONS PREPARE AND RESPOND?
What should churches, parachurch ministries, Christian colleges, and seminaries be doing?
Don’t Shift Your Theological Views. Perhaps the best example of how to walk in this tension is Jesus himself. Jesus attended a gathering of “many tax collectors and sinners” at Matthew’s house without compromising his convictions. He actually told the Pharisees, “Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders” (Matthew 9:13, The Message). Jesus also affirmed God’s marriage covenant without malice toward others, was gracious and truthful with the woman by the well, forgave the adulterous woman in John 8 and told her not to sin anymore, etc. Living in the tension of grace and truth is both challenging and life changing.
Know What Might Be Said About You. A person or religious institution that holds conservative beliefs about sexuality (contrary to the narrow-minded metanarrative of the Equality Act) might be accused of being hateful and bigoted.
Those words are already being used to describe (i.e., attack) pastors. Earlier this year, Max Lucado was invited to preach virtually at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His invitation sparked outrage among progressive extremists. One such individual—an Episcopal Church priest—said, “Max Lucado’s theology has a body count. . . . It feels deeply disrespectful for an Episcopal church . . . to publicize Lucado without any mention of this.”
A “body count”? Seriously? As crazy as that sounds, some extremists will accuse more pastors of such villainy.
Stay Updated on Ministerial Exemption. Even if the Equality Act passes and eliminates the coverage the RFRA provides, religious institutions still have ministerial exemption. Though it’s not as encompassing as the RFRA, it does provide protection for religious freedom, and it firmly lies within the judicial branch, not the legislative branch.
Discuss Facility Rentals. Similarly, churches that rent out their facilities (or even allow their facilities to be used free of charge) for weddings, funerals, special events, and so on could be viewed as “public accommodations.” In other words, if a church rents out their facilities for weddings, then the church may need to be prepared to rent out their facilities to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
My opinion is that religious organizations should apply more stringent filters to deciding who can and cannot rent out their facilities. The best-case scenario might be not to rent out any facilities, but I realize the complexities of how this idea flies in the face of reaching out to the community. Many churches (like Eastpoint Christian Church in Maine, 2|42 Community Church in Michigan, and Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas) already use their facilities in ways that reach out to the community—but it is done under the banner of their organization.
Serve LGBTQ People. One of the best ways to gain allies and influence people for Jesus is to serve them. Do some research about upcoming events in your communities. Is there a pantry that’s having a “fill the pantry day” for homeless LGBTQ people? Is a medical center having a day dedicated to serving individuals with HIV/AIDS where people from your church could volunteer?
In Knowing Christ Today, author and Christian philosopher Dallas Willard wrote that our society is experiencing a tension “between the central things Christians believe and what is accepted as knowledge of reality, [and the outcome of that tension] is the destabilization of belief and practice.” Those words from 2009 seem more applicable than ever before, and yet, churches and Christian educational institutions must be consistent with their theological convictions and gracious at the same time.
Even though my tone may seem fear-based, that’s not my intention. Religious institutions must be strategic, but that doesn’t mean they need to be scared. This is not a season to be fearful, but a season which the church can leverage to serve people and influence them for Christ in new ways.