Thousands of faith-based organizations would be closed or punished by the government if the Equality Act becomes law, senators were told during a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
The bill, H.R. 5, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – a law that was passed to confront racial discrimination – by adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of protected classes for public places and accommodations, education, housing and employment. President Biden supports it.
Two panelists told senators the Equality Act would have a dire impact on religious liberty.
“Any organization or any school ... that held to a biological view of sex as part of its religious belief, would come in the crosshairs of this new anti-discrimination law,” journalist and researcher Abigail Shrier said.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) argued that “millions of Americans will be treated as second-class citizens and threatened with lawsuits simply for believing that men are men and women are women.”
Cotton asked Shrier and Mary Rice Hasson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center if they believe the Equality Act, if it becomes law, would “shutter or punish thousands of charities, clinics, community services and schools across the country” that are faith-based.
“Yes,” Shrier said.
“Absolutely,” Hasson said, adding that “any religious house of worship, faith-based charity that abides by restrictions based on biological sex” would be impacted.
“For example, if you have a Jewish charitable outreach that separates men and women, it is going to be subject to a discrimination lawsuit, because they're going to be risking violation of that provision, protecting gender identity. So it is not true to say that people of faith don't lose anything [under the Equality Act]. We lose everything. … It's a complete, just radical, radical change in the rights for religious Americans.”
The text of the bill, she noted, explicitly forbids individuals from using the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act to sue based on classes covered by the Equality Act. That law was signed by President Clinton and prevents the government from “substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion,” according to its text.
Religious Americans “do not have recourse to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act” under the Equality Act, Hasson said.
“It's expanding their potential liability and vulnerability, and at the same time, pulling away what has been a tremendously important statute for religious people,” Hasson said.
The Equality Act, Hasson said, does not exempt houses of worship from what is considered a public accommodation.
“To the contrary, what this does is it expands that definition of public accommodations,” she said.
A church that “opens the doors to the community” with any sort of ministry, she said, can be “subject to discrimination suits, because they're now going to be considered a public accommodation in the same way as a stadium or something like that.”
People of faith, Hasson said, want to “live out” their faith and “carry it out in action.”
The Equality Act, she added, tells religious Americans: “You’re not welcome to live your faith in the public square.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Ak Phuong
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.