Washington Wednesday: Equality Act

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 20th of March, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Washington Wednesday.

Last week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced a new bill at a press conference on Capitol Hill.

PELOSI: Here we are today. We are proud to stand with members from both sides of the Capitol to take a momentous step toward full equality for all LGBTQ Americans and for our country.

REICHARD: It’s called the Equality Act. It would ban discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, jury duty, credit, and federal programs. It would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes along with race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion.

Pelosi pointed to the Trump administration’s partial ban on transgender people in the military that went into effect last week. That’s one of her reasons to support it.

PELOSI: While the president betrays our values with his ban, the Congress is bringing our nation closer to the founding promise of equal liberty and justice for all with the Equality Act. Sexual orientation and gender identity deserve full civil rights protection in the workplace and every place.

EICHER: “Every place” is no exaggeration. The bill provides almost no religious exemptions.

That has religious freedom groups concerned. Andrew Walker is Senior Fellow with the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

WALKER: The Equality Act basically says you can have your religion, but you better keep it inside the four walls of your church because if you dare take your religious convictions that you learn on a Sunday and you apply those convictions on a Monday, that’s not welcome.

REICHARD: Here now to talk about the bill is WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg. Good morning, Sarah.


REICHARD: Sarah, let’s begin with some background. This isn’t really “new” legislation is it?

SCHWEINSBERG: That’s right. It’s really just the the latest version.

REICHARD: Well, how did we get here?

SCHWEINSBERG:  This story actually goes back to 19-94 when the original bill along these lines was first proposed. It was called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which became known by the acronym ENDA. That legislation prohibited employment discrimination based on sexual orientation while still exempting religious organizations. It never got a vote.

But over the next two decades lawmakers kept bring it up, and it had various small successes but never made it to the president’s desk. And during this time most Christian advocacy groups remained universally opposed to these bills.

REICHARD: OK, you said two decades, which brings us up to about five years ago. What changed then?

SCHWEINSBERG: Well, Hobby Lobby happened. Hobby Lobby is of course the Christian-owned craft store chain.  The Supreme court handed down a decision that Hobby Lobby didn’t have to include abortifacient drugs in its employer-sponsored health insurance plans. That was 2014.

Mary, I’m sure you remember covering this at the time.

REICHARD: I do. The court based its decision on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA for short.

SCHWEINSBERG: Right. Well, LGBT advocacy groups and other liberal organizations were upset. They actually tried to repeal part of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

At the same time, we saw a realignment on ENDA. Groups that traditionally supported ENDA turned away from it. And some of the groups that used to oppose it actually started pushing it.

REICHARD: Interesting. What about that decision in particular caused the flip?

SCHWEINSBERG: LGBTQ advocacy groups said the Hobby Lobby case showed that religion had become a cover for discrimination. So they no longer liked ENDA because it had too many religious exemptions for employers and religious institutions.

REICHARD: So that’s why Democrats no longer supported ENDA legislation. Is that what brought us to the Equality Act then?

SCHWEINSBERG: Yes, but not right away. It wasn’t until after the 2015 Obergefell decision, which legalized gay marriage, that Democrats first introduced the Equality Act.

And of course, then Republicans controlled the House at the time. So the legislation didn’t go anywhere, but it continued to build support. Last Congress, it had 2-hundred-1 sponsors—including two Republicans.

Then last year, before the midterm elections, would-be Speaker Pelosi vowed that if Democrats took back the House they’d reintroduce the bill. And like you mentioned in the intro, this legislation is sweeping. It virtually extends special protection to LGBTQ persons in every part of society.

REICHARD: Meaning a guy like baker Jack Phillips would no longer have a case. Is that the biggest reason groups like Alliance Defending Freedom are opposed to this?

SCHWEINSBERG: Yeah, exactly. This legislation has virtually no religious exemptions in the workplace and public sphere. The ACLU even admitted this in a press release. It said the Equality Act will prevent religious liberty from “being used as a license to discriminate.”

So conservative organizations like ADF are concerned there will be a sharp rise in the types of lawsuits we’ve seen over the last five years. Not only Phillips, as you mentioned, but also lawsuits against religious adoption agencies that won’t place children with same-sex couples. And teachers that have been fired for refusing to use transgender students’ preferred pronoun.

REICHARD: So even more litigation against religious people. What other reasons are religious groups giving for their opposition?

SCHWEINSBERG: I’ll let Greg Baylor answer that. He’s with ADF, and I asked him the same question.

BAYLOR: First, it will pressure, uh, individuals to create speech in violation of their consciences and their convictions.

Second, it will undermine the rights of parents to make the best decisions they can for children who may be experiencing a discordance between their biological sex and their gender identity.

Third, it’ll have a significant adverse impact on religious organizations. It will coerce them into retaining and hiring individuals who were unwilling to comply with the moral standards of the faith.

And finally, it will impose very serious harms upon the medical profession. There are many doctors and psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors out who believe that affirming across gender identity, particularly in children is not good medical practice. And the Equality Act would punish and coerce medical professionals as well.

REICHARD: Okay, Sarah, obviously there are many concerns with the bill. But what should Christians say to those who argue that LGBT people really do need legal protection?

SCHWEINSBERG: Yeah, that’s an important issue. Andrew Walker with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission had some thoughts on it.

WALKER: We believe our LGBT neighbors are made in the image of God. They’re deserving of dignity and kindness and respect. And Christians should oppose all forms of unjust or invidious discrimination. But the problem with the Equality Act is that it doesn’t properly take into account the different types of situations where evangelicals and LGBT individuals disagree on what is at root discriminatory. We need to have these bigger cultural conversations about what constitutes actual discrimination, but because the Equality Act just doesn’t allow for it.

REICHARD: Okay, and I guess the big question is about the bill’s prospects. What are the odds that it will land on the president’s desk?

SCHWEINSBERG: Well, it’s likely the bill will pass the House. Democrats have the votes. But it isn’t likely to get past the GOP-controlled Senate where it will likely die and not even get a vote.

But this would still mark a major step forward for LGBT activists. Over a 20-year period, ENDA passed the House and Senate once each. It never made it to the president’s desk. We’re now seeing a more extreme bill make the same progress in under four years.

REICHARD: Sarah Schweinsberg is a WORLD Radio reporter. Sarah, thank you for this report.

SCHWEINSBERG: You are welcome, Mary.

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) In this Wednesday, July 26, 2017 file photo, people with the Human Rights Campaign hold up “equality flags” during an event organized by Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., in support of transgender members of the military on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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