A sweeping bill that would extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ people is a top priority of President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress. Yet as the Equality Act heads to the Senate after winning House approval, its prospects seem bleak – to a large extent because of opposition from conservative religious leaders.
The public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, calls the act “the most significant threat to religious liberty ever considered in the United States Congress.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has assailed it as discriminating against people of faith.
The act is the latest version of proposals previously introduced in Congress without success. It would amend existing civil rights law to explicitly cover sexual orientation and gender identity, with protections extending to employment, housing, education and public accommodations such as restaurants, theaters, hotels, libraries, gas stations and retail stores.
The bill maintains longstanding exemptions for houses of worship and other religious institutions – for example, they could limit employment to people who shared their faith’s beliefs and could refuse to perform same-sex marriages.
But faith-based homeless shelters and adoption or foster-care agencies that receive federal funding would not be permitted to discriminate against LGBTQ people. And it would be more difficult for a wide range of businesses to justify anti-LGBTQ discrimination, regardless of personal or religious beliefs.
“It will be very difficult for Christian schools, Christian colleges, even in some cases for the ministries of Christian churches to proceed,” the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a recent radio broadcast.
LGBTQ activists view the opposition to the bill as a consequence of longstanding hostility to their community’s advances, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage and the growth of a transgender rights movement.
“Our opponents are seeking to expand religious exemptions and create a second class of citizens,” said Alphonso David, an attorney who heads the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ-rights organization.
“In their narrative I could walk into a store as a Black man and not face discrimination, but walk in as a gay man and get thrown out,” David said.