The Equality Act Takes Away Religious Exemptions

The Equality Act Takes Away Religious Exemptions March 12, 2021


The Equality Act, which extends the Civil Rights anti-discrimination laws to sexual orientation and gender identity, has passed the House of Representatives and goes to the Senate.

The problem with the bill is not just what it would do to women’s sports or girls’ bathrooms.  Or even Christian florists and wedding cake bakers.  It would also forbid churches, as well as Christian ministries and organizations, from enforcing their doctrines about sexuality.

Yes, some religious exemptions remain will remain on the books, but these are for religious beliefs; however, the Equality Act outlaws religious practices based on those beliefs.  The Equality Act explicitly takes away the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it comes to charges of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Moreover, the Equality Act takes the opportunity to also crush religious resistance to abortion.  It creates a new category of discrimination on the basis of  “pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” and requires that “treatment” be given on the same basis as any “other physical conditions.”  See what that does?  Abortion is a “related medical condition.”  No health care professional will be allowed to refuse to participate in an abortion–or gender-reassignment surgery–without being charged with discrimination.  Thus the Equality Act takes away the “conscience clause” that protects pro-life doctors and nurses from having to perform or help perform abortions.

It includes this language, quoted directly from the bill:

‘‘The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 23 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide 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.’’

The Equality Act is the most direct and explicit attack on religious liberty in this country ever, as far as I can recall.

But surely that can’t be, we might think.  Religious freedom is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights!  And the Civil Rights law also forbids discrimination on the basis of religion.  Defenders of the Equality Act say that the measure will not infringe on religious beliefs, as such.  Existing exemptions would still be in place.  For example, churches will still have the right to hire ministers who share their religious beliefs.  The only difference is that churches will not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of a minister’s sexual orientation or gender identity!

Evangelist Franklin Graham sent out a letter expressing his alarm at what this law would do, and evidently someone assumed that it just could not be true. So they asked Snopes, the urban legend factchecker.  Snopes, which obviously approves of the bill, ruled that what Graham was saying was a “Mixture” of truth and falsehood.  In doing so, they analyze the bill in some illuminating ways.

From Snopes, Is Franklin Graham’s ‘Urgent Prayer Alert’ About the US Equality Act Correct? (my emphases):

What’s True

The U.S. Equality Act would prohibit schools, hospitals, public accommodations and in some cases churches from discriminating against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; legally oblige those establishments to accommodate transgender persons in accordance with their preferred gender identity; remove a major “conscience protection” for religious healthcare workers; and leave religious colleges open to being cut off from federal assistance if they violate Title VI non-discrimination rules.

What’s False

However, the Equality Act would not as Graham’s letter asserts neutralize an existing exemption in federal law that allows religious organizations to discriminate in favor of employees of the same religious faith or religious values; directly cause religious colleges to lose their accreditation (as opposed to jeopardizing their access to federal assistance); or force business owners and others to change their personal beliefs and attitudes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity (as opposed to their behavior).

So churches could decline to hire someone based on their beliefs, but not their behavior.  They will still be able to insist that their ministers ascribe to their Statement of Faith.  But if the minister comes out as gay or has sex-reassignment surgery or otherwise begins identifying as a woman, the church would be unable to remove him (or her). Christian colleges could still affirm their belief in Biblical sexual morality, their students would just lose their financial aid, which may well put the college out of business.

The Snopes discussion has other things to say about how the law would apply to religion:

Schools, healthcare providers, and potentially in some circumstances churches, would be prohibited from discriminating against clients, customers, and members of the public on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but the law would govern only their behavior, not their personal beliefs and attitudes.

The discussion repeats this distinction over and over.  As if religion were only a matter of “personal beliefs and attitudes” and not “behavior”!

Snopes says that churches would indeed be required to rent out their facilities to gay weddings:

While the Equality Act does not list churches among public accommodations, it does stipulate that an establishment subject to the non-discrimination laws in question is any individual or entity “whose operations affect commerce and who is a provider of a good, service, or program.” This would clearly appear to apply to churches that lease or make available buildings for events and functions.

As for eliminating the “conscience clause,” Snopes agrees that this is “TRUE”:

TRUE: The bill explicitly removes a major “conscience protection” in the form of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and appears to leave healthcare workers who object to gender transition and reassignment treatments for religious reasons without a robust legal defense.

Snopes thinks the proposed law would leave intact the conscience clause for abortion, but, while the Equality Act doesn’t mention abortion explicitly, the implication of what it says about “pregnancy discrimination” is clear enough.

The Equality Act, though passed by the House and though supported by President Biden, will surely not pass the Senate, with its filibuster rules requiring a 60% majority.  Some observers think it might, if the explicit anti-religion language is removed and exemptions for churches are carved out.

At any rate, the bill already passed by Congress is a breathtaking assault on the First Amendment.  And its passage demonstrates just how little the current administration and the Congressional majority cares about religious freedom.

UPDATE:  Read this statement from the president of the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod (HT:  Pam Nielsen), who sums up the issue like this:

The Equality Act expands the definition of “public accommodation” and puts an ultimatum to individuals, religious non-profits, food banks, schools, charities, adoption agencies and others: “Change your faith-based practices or face government punishment.”


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