By Tom Strode
Washington Bureau Chief, Baptist Press
WASHINGTON – The Equality Act will explicitly contradict the “fundamental liberties” guaranteed in the Bill of Rights if it becomes law, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission told a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday (March 17).
In written testimony for the Senate Judiciary Committee, the ERLC said the far-reaching gay and transgender rights proposal “would needlessly penalize and discriminate against millions of Americans who possess no animus toward those this bill purports to aid. As law, the Equality Act would undermine pluralism, legalize coercion, imperil religious liberty, eliminate conscience protections, and erode the very freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.”
The ERLC submitted its analysis on the same day the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Equality Act (H.R. 5), which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the classifications protected in federal civil rights law. “Sexual orientation” includes homosexuality, bisexuality and pansexuality, while “gender identity” refers to the self-perception of a person regardless of his or her gender at birth.
The Democratic-controlled House approved the bill in a 224-206 vote in late February, and President Biden has endorsed the legislation. The measure faces a difficult path to approval in the Senate, where supporters will need 60 votes to overcome an expected filibuster.
After the House vote, ERLC President Russell Moore described the Equality Act as “poorly named because, among other negative effects, it would punish faith-based charities for their core religious beliefs. Every human being ought to be treated with dignity, but government policy must continue to respect differences of belief.”
In its testimony, the ERLC offered three major reasons for its opposition to the proposal. It said the Equality Act:
- “[W]ould bring sweeping and historic changes to religious liberty with devastating effects to this foundational freedom.
- “[W]ould be the most pro-abortion bill ever passed by Congress.
- “[[U]ndermines decades of hard fought civil rights protections for women and girls.”
The proposal fails to protect the freedom of religion and conscience of faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies, as well as religious hospitals and health-care workers, according to the ERLC’s testimony.
It “would force faith-based child welfare organizations to either abandon their deeply held religious beliefs [on such issues as marriage and family] or be shut down,” the ERLC said. Regarding health care, faith-based providers typically serve people of all backgrounds, including those who identify as gay or transgender, according to the testimony. But those with moral or religious convictions “cannot perform every procedure a patient requests,” such as gender reassignment surgery, and would “risk losing their jobs” if they refused to do so, the ERLC said.
The Equality Act “would explicitly curtail” the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the ERLC said. The 1993 law, which was passed nearly unanimously by Congress, requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise.
The bill would violate the conscience rights of health-care workers who oppose participation in abortions by redefining “sex” to consist of “pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” according to the ERLC’s testimony. It also would threaten the Hyde Amendment, a 45-year-old ban on federal funding of abortion, the ERLC said. “There is nothing equalizing about forcing Americans to fund abortions through taxpayer dollars.”
Moore joined more than 60 other pro-life leaders in a separate letter sent Wednesday to Judiciary Committee leadership in opposition to the legislation, which they described as potentially “the biggest setback to the pro-life movement since Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the country.
The ERLC also said the measure “disregards the privacy and safety concerns” of women by removing legal protections for single-sex spaces such as locker rooms and shelters. In addition, the proposal would threaten the advances of females in athletics and academics under Title IX by permitting biological males to compete against them, according to the ERLC.
The bill would dissolve “clear boundaries around” government authority, “bringing the full weight of government against religious institutions and individual Americans simply for holding fast to their fundamental beliefs about anthropology and personhood,” the ERLC said.
In its testimony, the ERLC cited a resolution approved by messengers to the 2018 SBC Annual Meeting that reaffirmed “the sacredness and full dignity and worthiness of respect and Christian love for every single human being, without any reservation.”
The hearing by the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee – titled “The Equality Act: LGBTQ Rights are Human Rights” – consisted of verbal testimony by the bill’s supporters and opponents from Congress and outside organizations.
Advocates for the Equality Act say it is needed to protect throughout the country the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) people in such categories as employment, housing and public accommodations – which include establishments that provide goods, services or programs, as well as, according to the bill, health-care providers.
Opponents, which include some feminists, say they oppose unjust discrimination but contend the Equality Act would have ill effects such as those outlined by the ERLC.
In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a watershed decision regarding federal employment law by ruling in a 6-3 opinion the category “sex” in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act applies to LGBTQ employees.