Conservatives claim equality for LGBTQ people violates their religious freedom

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Opponents of the Equality Act say its nondiscrimination protections hurt religion. Advocates say that's just fearmongering.

Groups opposed to the Equality Act, a landmark nondiscrimination bill that would protect LGBTQ people in a number of ways, say that they're concerned that the bill puts religious freedom rights at risk — but experts on nondiscrimination laws say their opponents are simply engaging in fear-mongering.

The Equality Act protects not only LGBTQ people but also nonwhite communities, women, and minority faiths in areas such as housing, employment, public accommodations, jury service, and more.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has opposed the legislation, saying its requirements "discriminate against people of faith" and will "inflict numerous legal and social harms on Americans of any faith or none."

Leading up to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the legislation, several anti-LGBTQ groups used Facebook ads to spread misinformation about what the Equality Act does. The Illinois Family Institute's ad linked to a website that said of the bill, "Buh-bye religious liberty. It was nice knowing you these past glorious 230 years."

A Public Religion Research Institute poll released this week found that the majority of Catholics across racial and ethnic groups favor LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. The poll also found support across religious categories. Seventy-six percent of Americans said they favor these protections.

Some of these arguments have taken root with senators who LGBTQ advocates hope will consider voting for the bill.

During the Senate hearing on March 17, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) said, "Even in 2021, our LGBTQ friends, family, neighbors, still face discrimination from employment to health care to housing to homelessness among LGBTQ youth."

He later added, "But on the other hand, we have millions of Americans who are people of faith who have serious and legitimate issues of conscience. The challenge for us as legislators is to figure out how we reconcile the disparate and in some cases, competing interests."

Tillis as well as Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), are among some of the Senate Republicans who have shown openness to advancing LGBTQ rights and are being contacted by LGBTQ groups and other advocates for the bill.

Adam Polaski, communications director for Campaign for Southern Equality, said of Tillis' remarks, "Those comments, the ones that were positive, sort of opens the door to additional conversations with him."

Artie Hartsell, advocacy and elections strategist at Equality North Carolina, who is transgender and nonbinary, organized and met with Tillis' and Burr's offices recently. There were three virtual meetings in total. Hartsell shared their personal experiences with hostility in health care.

"Staff for both senators have asked how we plan to get around the 'religious liberties argument.' Thankfully, alongside me in many of these meetings have been clergy members and other people of faith, and we have all shared that we strongly support LGBTQ protections because of our faith, not in spite of it," they said.

Right-wing groups have long attempted to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to advocate against nondiscrimination protections. The law, which was passed in the 1990s, was intended to respond to a Supreme Court case involving Native American men who ingested peyote for religious reasons and were denied unemployment benefits as a result.

The Equality Act would make it so that the religious freedom law could not be used as a legal defense to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

Sunu Chandy, legal director at National Women's Law Center, said, "It has been misused to defend discrimination in public settings or with public federal funds. And many courts have said that really does not comport with the point of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was supposed to protect individuals engaging in minority religious practices."

Elizabeth Reiner Platt, director of the law, rights, and religion project at Columbia Law School, said, "The Supreme Court has said repeatedly that anti-discrimination laws really have to be applied more or less uniformly in order to be effective."

She added, "What I think the Christian right is demanding now, or folks who are pushing back against the Equality Act are demanding, is essentially that LGBTQ anti-discrimination law should work differently than any other kind of anti-discrimination law. So it's a new standard that could allow a much broader range of hiring discrimination."

Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, said these efforts reflect the fact that opponents of the bill know that it has widespread support across the United States.

"There has been a lot of intentional fear-mongering to dissuade people from supporting the Equality Act because there are lawmakers and groups that know the public overwhelmingly supports LGBTQ progress," she said.

The bill would not force religious institutions to change their practices and protections in public accommodations only affect situations where those institutions open up their services to the public, Warbelow added.

As Hartsell explained, "Religious liberties, especially those for Christians in the United States, continue to be protected under the Constitution, and those of us in support of the Equality Act also support the protection of religious liberties. I don't know of any religion in the United States where a main proponent is to discriminate against people in public life."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.