Democratic Senator Dick Durbin on Wednesday compared opponents of the Equality Act to members of the Ku Klux Klan, saying “we have to have limits” on what people can do in defense of religious liberty.
Durbin (Ill.) made the comments at the conclusion of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 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, as does Durbin.
Two panelists on Wednesday told senators that the Equality Act would lead to the government closing or punishing thousands of faith-based organizations. Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said in a recent column the Equality Act “represents the greatest present threat to religious liberty in the United States.
At first, Durbin compared the situation to the fight in the 1970s for the Equal Rights Amendment.
“Fifty years ago, fresh out of law school I went to work for the Illinois state Senate, and met a woman named Phyllis Schlafly, who was leading the charge against the Equal Rights Amendment,” he said. “And I guess the war cry of the day was, ‘Don't get in our bathrooms. Those men are coming in our bathrooms.’ And that really drove the debate for a long period of time. The Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified in time by the states.”
Durbin said, “privacy is a very important element to everybody, as it should be,” but he said he hopes “we can learn a lesson” from the opposition to the ERA. He then turned to the issue of same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide.
“Some of the great fears we have, such as equality of marriage, destroying the institution of marriage – Obergefell was decided six years ago and my wife and I are still married, [and] it didn't stop us in terms of continuing commitment – that we take a look at this in realistic terms,” he said.
Durbin then referenced the KKK.
“On the religious aspect of this, I'm going to tread very carefully and lightly, just to say I do not believe some of the things that have been suggested as the products of the Equality Act,” he said. “I do believe that people who want to blatantly discriminate and use religion as their weapon have gone too far. We have to have limits on what they can do. I might remind us in history that the Ku Klux Klan was not burning question marks – they were burning a cross; they were making some distorted connection with religion. And God forbid that anybody would buy that. We don't need that in America, regardless of the time, regardless of the organization wherever they come down on the political spectrum. I hope that we can come together with conversations that will lead us to a positive conclusion on this matter.”
John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pa., criticized Durbin for the KKK comparison, saying he was “fanning” the flames. Fea, though, said some opponents of the Equality Act were fanning the flames, too.
“As I recently told CBS News, there are no simple solutions to this debate,” Fea wrote at CurrentPub.com. “It pits the 14th Amendment (civil rights for all Americans) against the 1st Amendment (religious freedom). It seems like both sides are too often talking past each other. I want the supporters of the Equality Act to say more about how it will influence Christian organizations that uphold traditional views on sexuality. I want the opponents of the Equality Act to talk more about LGBTQ rights.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Pool
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.