The greatest threat to religious liberty under the Biden Administration is the Equality Act, which despite its name, would be a "clear and present" danger to freedom of conscience, says former solicitor general Ken Starr.
The bill, which passed the House of Representatives this year 224-206 and is backed by President Biden, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by adding "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the list of protected classes for public places, education and employment.
Starr told Christian Headlines the bill is at the "very top" of his list of concerns related to religious liberty.
"If enacted, the Equality Act would quash conscientious objections on the part of faith-based individuals," Starr told Christian Headlines. "... I view the Equality Act as a clear and present danger to something that is foundational to our constitutional order, our religious liberty, and that is freedom of conscience. The coercive powers of the government are going to be boldly expanded if the Equality Act is passed into law."
Starr, a former solicitor general, federal judge and university president (Baylor), recently released a book to help Americans understand the legal and political battle for religious liberty. It's titled "Religious Liberty in Crisis: Exercising Your Faith in an Age of Uncertainty." Starr says he wants to help laypeople "speak into the culture effectively."
But the battle for religious liberty would become more difficult if the Equality Act becomes law, Starr said.
The text of the Equality Act explicitly forbids individuals from using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) to sue based on claims within the Equality Act. That law, signed by President Clinton, prevents the government from "substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion."
"It would mean that individuals such as Jack Phillips, the famous Lakewood, Colo., baker who could not in conscience create -- using his artistry, his creative powers -- a cake to celebrate a non-traditional wedding, it means he loses. He's out. That's just a single and simple and understandable example of what it would mean for RFRA not to apply," Starr said.
Although the Supreme Court has issued a series of pro-LGBT decisions in recent years, Starr remains optimistic the justices will find the right balance and protect religious liberty, too.
"It can be done," Starr told Christian Headlines. "It can be done by saying, of course, every person should be treated with dignity and respect. And so, let's use the bakery example again. The LGBTQ customer should come in, be treated with dignity and respect just like anyone else, to be able to buy anything in the store."
But Phillips should not be forced to celebrate something he opposes, Starr argued.
"Respect the views and dignity of all persons," Starr said. "Don't use the coercive powers of the government to quash the expression that is informed by freedom of conscience."
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Alex Edelman/Stringer
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.