The Equality Act: The Background, Battle, and Our Beliefs
The Equality Act passed the US House of Representatives on February 25, 2021, and is on its way to the Senate. What is the Equality Act? And why should disciples of Jesus pay attention? In this article, we will discuss the background of the bill, the current battle that centers on the bill, and how the bill intersects with our beliefs.
The Equality Act was already introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019. Its aim was to expand on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by adding “sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity” to groups protected from discrimination. Although the Civil Rights Act already prohibited discrimination in areas of employment and housing, the Equality Act would broaden protections to include, among other things, all public accommodations. In 2019, the bill passed in the Democrat-controlled House but stalled out in the Republican-controlled Senate.
In 2021, the bill from 2019 is back. Any difference this time besides a new President and a reshuffling of the congressional deck? Yes, actually. In 2020, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) surprised the nation by handing down an interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which updated the word “sex” to include homosexual and transgender people. In interpreting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a manner friendly to LGBTQ concerns, the 2020 decision gives the Equality Act of 2021 momentum.
The Story behind the 2020 SCOTUS Act
Aimee was studying for the ministry when she discovered her love for ministering to mourners. Thus began a 20-year career in funeral services. She eventually became a funeral director for Harris Funeral Homes in Detroit.
Yet Aimee did not always identify as Aimee or as “she.”
While on staff as a funeral director, Aimee came out as a transgendered woman. Thomas Rost, owner of Harris Funeral Homes, explained that, six years into her employment, “The employee gave me a letter expressing an intent to start dressing and presenting as a woman when working with grieving families.” This went against the Harris dress policy which was carefully crafted so that each employee can “blend into the background so the family can focus on its grief.”
Because Aimee would not comply with the Harris policy, she was fired. When she sued the funeral home, the ACLU took up her cause. This was one of the cases which culminated in the June 15, 2020, SCOTUS ruling which broadened workplace protections to cover homosexual and transgender workers. At question was the definition of “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to Title VII, there cannot be workplace discrimination because of someone’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” On June 15, the SCOTUS broadened “sex” to include homosexual and transgender workers because, as Justice Gorsuch explained, “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision,” for example, when an employee is fired because of homosexual or transgender identity.
The case known as “Bostock v Clayton County” ended with a surprising 6-3 decision, with traditionally conservative justices Gorsuch and Roberts siding with the majority.
Where did this decision put religious institutions which have statements of belief which prohibit LGBTQ behavior as going against biblical standards? In the majority opinion, Gorsuch went on to directly address the predicament that religious institutions could face:
“Worries about how Title VII may intersect with religious liberties are nothing new; they even predate the statute’s passage. As a result of its deliberations in adopting the law,
Congress included an express statutory exception for religious organizations.”
In other words, already built into Title VII is the ability to claim religious exception. Plus, as Gorsuch pointed out, faith-based institutions already had the ability to make employment decisions based on their religious beliefs.
Not everyone was optimistic.
Russell Moore of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission warned, “The ruling also will have seismic implications for religious liberty, setting off potentially years of lawsuits and court struggles, about what this means, for example, for religious organizations with religious convictions about the meaning of sex and sexuality.”
Celebrants of June 15’s decision echoed Moore’s prediction, although coming at it from the other side: “The Court is also considering whether to grant employers with religious objections to LGBTQ people an exemption from anti-discrimination laws. . . . The fate of individual LGBTQ workers remains unclear—at least for employees with bosses who object to LGBTQ people on religious grounds.” In other words, the next battle would be over the rights of religious organizations to hire and fire based on religious convictions.
That battle both sides predicted is here in the form of the Equality Act.
Whereas the Bostock decision brought in sexual orientation and gender identity under the word sex, the Equality Act spells these categories out explicitly and singles them out for expanded protections. Throughout the bill are numerous specifications that “sex” in the Civil Rights Act be changed to “sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity.” Gender identity is defined as “the gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth.” Sexual orientation is defined to mean “homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality.”
Why would LGBTQ individuals need expanded protections? The text of the Equality Act begins by listing types of discrimination that continue to be experienced by LGBTQ people in particular (as well as some by women in general). These include “the sex stereotype that marriage should only be between heterosexual couples,” “discrimination in securing access to public accommodations,” “the discredited practice known as ‘conversion therapy’ . . . undermining individuals [sic] sense of self worth,” “discrimination in employment,” “unequal opportunities to establish credit,” and “many child placing agencies refus[ing] to serve same-sex couples and LGBTQ individuals.”
The Equality Act seeks to rectify discrimination:
- Public Activities – Discrimination toward LGBTQ individuals will be explicitly prohibited on a national level in areas of housing, employment, public education, jury selection, and public accommodation. NPR explains that such sweeping directives will affect businesses which have chosen not to render services against their conscience, such as a baker who refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
- Restrooms and Lockers – “An individual shall not be denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, a locker room, and a dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual’s gender identity.” This would give complete and unrestricted access to these facilities, such that for example, biological males who identity as female would share locker rooms and dressing rooms with biological females.
- Public accommodations – in which these measures apply are expanded to include any place or establishment that provides “(1) exhibitions, recreation, exercise, amusement, gatherings, or displays; (2) goods, services, or programs; and (3) transportation services.” It is difficult to think of any public place excluded from these lists, including churches.
What about religious exemptions?
Under the Equality Act, how will religious schools, churches, mosques, etc. retain their convictions about sexuality and gender in public places? What will protect the rights of Christian ministers, for example, to refuse to perform same-sex marriages or of Christian colleges to refuse to hire a lesbian professor or allow transgender people to reside in dormitories opposite their biological sex?
On these questions, the Equality Act is anything but vague. The act singles out a 1993 bill called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA), which “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.” The Equality Act directly refers to the RFRA and says that it “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”
Translation: The RFRA cannot be used to challenge any of the protections against discrimination specified in the Equality Act.
Interestingly, the 1993 RFRA was introduced by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton. In other words, the Equality Act isn’t a means of tempering an overreaching conservative devotion to religious freedom. Rather, the act neutralizes what was long considered a central liberty by Republican and Democrat alike. By paralyzing people from appealing to religious freedom in the areas of sexuality and gender, the Equality Act makes explicit what Justice Samuel Alito warned about in a 2020 speech, that “religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”
On February 25, 2021, the Equality Act passed the House of Representatives as it did in 2019.
Will it pass the Senate too and become law?
Most but not all senators are expected to vote along party lines. Unlike in 2019, the Senate is no longer Republican-controlled, with it being an even split between Republicans and Democrats. Yet Republicans have the option of employing a filibuster, which could be broken only with 60 votes in favor of the bill’s passage.
How should Christians respond to the Equality Act?
Let’s begin by noting that Christians don’t all vote the same way on every issue—and that’s a good thing. It is unfortunate when evangelical Christians are treated as nothing more than a “voting bloc.” The body of Christ was always meant to be a place where people who differ sociologically, politically, demographically, etc. could unite in Christ and love each other despite differences (e.g., Col. 3:11). Within RENEW.org, we have leaders with differing perspectives on different issues, and this is a strength, not a weakness. Let us seek unity in Christ even as we recognize the importance of disagreeing graciously and humbly in areas of personal opinion.
However, there are political moments which should unite Bible-believing Christians. We suggest that this is one such political moment.
We admire the goal of combating discrimination and unkindness toward people, such as the Equality Act attempts to do. However, we also recognize that the Equality Act explicitly seeks to override Christians’ biblical convictions regarding sexuality and gender in various ways. As such, Bible-believing Christians ought to respectfully but firmly oppose the Equality Act in the way it is written to disregard and even vilify the religious convictions of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. In fact, a great many Americans – religious or not – ought to be concerned about features of the Equality Act, including its disregard of biological sex as a meaningful public category and its disregard of religious liberty.
Who Supports the Equality Act?
The pro-LGBTQ Human Rights Campaign boasts a massive coalition of major companies and influential organizations in favor of the Equality Act. To these they add numerous “faith-based organizations.” No doubt, these progressive faith-based organizations score cultural points by aligning themselves with the act. Yet these are not the faith-based organizations whose convictions the act criminalizes. There are those of us who do not have the luxury of surrendering our convictions for cultural clout. This is because—as strange as it might sound to secular ears—we really do believe Jesus is our authority, the Bible is true, and our personal ethics should center on the teachings of the New Testament.
It may sound villainous to paint oneself as someone who opposes something as righteous-sounding as the “Equality Act.” Yet it could very well be crucial to the future of many faith-based organizations to speak out against the Equality Act because of its contempt for faith-based convictions.
All the while, let us remember that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12), but against spiritual forces of evil.
People are never our enemy—even if they see us as their enemies. We want peace with people, even with those who would slander us and ridicule our convictions. We also recognize to our shame that there have been times we Christians have behaved atrociously toward people of different political views and moral behaviors. We acknowledge that there have been times of Christian political and cultural ascendancy when Christians have disregarded the interests of marginalized people.
Even in voicing concerns about the Equality Act, let us always recognize the humanity of each politician, activist, and LGBTQ person in the act’s orbit. Each one is profoundly beloved by God. We seek to be good citizens who pray for our governmental leaders “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4). This is not a prayer for a Christian nation, as if the government is an extension of the church—but for a nation that simply allows us to be Christian.
People are never our enemy—even if they see us as their enemies.
Jesus told His disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). It’s safe to say that, in this culture, religious organizations with Bible-grounded beliefs will have trouble too. It shouldn’t be surprising when even a “conservative majority” on the Supreme Court can’t insure us against the truth of Jesus’ words.
Biblical disciples believe that God’s word is true. We believe that God designed sex and gender and that we should align ourselves with His created design for humans. We are convinced that, if our churches and organizations follow the path paved by progressive Christianity, we will also follow their example of dying congregations and decaying convictions.
But it is much more than just that. We are concerned about approving and facilitating sinful behavior that harms people eternally—and sets up many more to fall into those sins in the future.
The Bible describes the sexual behaviors promoted in the Equality Act as those that will result in people being excluded from the Kingdom of God. Jesus inspired the apostle Paul to give us clarity because these acts were considered sexual immorality (Rom. 1:26-27). Galatians 5:19-21 states the individual consequences clearly:
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God“ (emphasis ours).
We are broken hearted for so many that we love who will be influenced by these policies.
And political measures such as these position us on defense so that, for example, we’re having to explain why we’re not transphobic for believing God created us “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). It is not an easy season for people who ground their view of sexuality on New Testament norms. God didn’t set us up for cultural applause when He commanded us to speak truth to bring people back from “the error of their way” (James 5:20), all the while staying away from virtue signaling (Matt. 6:1).
Yet, when we defend what we believe and defend the honor of the One we follow, we aren’t losing ground. Rather, it is through faithfulness to Jesus that the gospel advances. In light of eternity—not just current culture—let’s shift our internal dialogue from gloom to faithful trust.
What is the call to action for disciples of Jesus?
If we are being transparent, we’ll admit that most of us do not like the idea of publicly addressing this topic. Meaning, we are cautious with our friends and families and even in our churches, wanting to shy back from explicitly addressing something like the Equality Act.
In our current cultural moment, we do not want to appear intolerant or hateful or to lack compassion for those who struggle with LGBTQ issues. And a large number of us have the fresh emotional memories of a President who stated so many things in inappropriate ways. Most of us are hesitant to address such issues for fear of coming across as extremists.
But we are reminded of two important items in closing:
First, consider your role in the current cultural moment. In God’s providence, you live in a democratic republic. Your voice—like those of all our fellow Americans advocating for the Equality Act—counts. As a disciple of Jesus, you are called to be salt and light. You are called to be a faithful church even in an unchristian culture. We must remember the role Martin Luther King, Jr., described for the faithful church in relationship to government. Prayerfully think through his words:
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
Secondly, envision a time twenty years down the road for your children and grandchildren. How will they be able to withstand the cultural pressures to give up biblical convictions? If they personally hold to biblical morality on LGBTQ issues, what do you envision for them if religious freedoms with regard to these issues are stripped away? We know of companies that are already penalizing their employees for not supporting and attending gay pride parades. What will happen when the Equality Act becomes the law of the land? Many don’t realize how government-mandated laws are able to institutionalize and systematize sin in such a way that moral dissent becomes almost impossible.
- Will they be able to hold contrasting views in the workplace, even if they are held in private? Unlikely.
- Will their employment and advancement be held back if they do not voice full agreement? Yes.
- Will they face tremendous pressure to accept these lifestyles as good and healthy? Yes.
- Will companies led by Christians be able to uphold dissenting views? Doubtful.
- Will Christian schools and non-profits be able to withstand the legal challenges to upholding biblical morality on these issues? Doubtful.
- Will the local church be able to withstand the legal challenges presented by the Equality Act? No one knows.
We urge all of our readers to join us in watching this situation and in praying about an appropriate response in your life setting. It is not a sure thing that this bill will pass. The Senate must decide. Let’s ask God for guidance.
*Editor’s Note: Special thanks to lawyer Lannie Cates, J.D., for doing extensive research on the Equality Act for this article.