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Opponents of Equality Act warn of 'sweeping' impact in Senate hearing

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Opponents of the Equality Act warned Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the legislation could have a far-reaching impact on religious organizations. 

The House passed the Equality Act last month, a bill that would redefine sex discrimination in federal law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The bill’s supporters say it will prevent discrimination against Americans identifying as LGBT. Opponents - which include the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB) - have said it would not only codify gender ideology in federal law, but would also “punish” religious organizations that object to the ideology.

The USCCB has called the bill “well-intentioned but ultimately misguided,” saying that it frames gender as simply a “social construct.” On their website, the bishops said every person has the right “to be free of unjust discrimination,” the language of the bill “discriminates against people of faith and threatens unborn life.”

Opponents of the bill argued on Thursday that it would be especially harmful to women, forcing them to accommodate biological men identifying as transgender women in locker rooms and sports. 

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At Thursday’s hearing, Mary Rice Hasson, the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), said that “when the law privileges gender identity over sex, females suffer the consequences.” 

Hasson said the bill’s exclusion of federal religious freedom protections signals its intent to “coerce people of faith to exit the public square unless they trade their religious beliefs for the reigning ideology of today.”

The legislation passed by the House specifically excludes claims made under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which is a 1993 law restricting the federal government’s authority to infringe on religious beliefs. 

Under RFRA, the government cannot violate someone’s sincerely-held religious beliefs unless it proves that its action is in its compelling interest, and that the act is the least-restrictive means of furthering that interest.

The law passed the House by voice vote, passed the Senate overwhelmingly 97-3, and was signed by President Bill Clinton. It has been used to defend Native Americans, Jews, Sikhs, and members of other faiths against government mandates. Catholic groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, have invoked the law’s protections against the HHS contraceptive mandate. 

The Equality Act, however, would effectively supersede RFRA in its implementation.

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Abigail Shrier, author of "Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” said the gender ideology “at the heart of this bill is misogyny in progressive clothing.” 

“Gender Ideology tells women and three girls they are not entitled to their fear or their sense of unfairness as their protective spaces are eliminated,” Shrier said. 

The bill silences women, she claimed. “They [women] must never object that sports is—and has always been—a matter of biology, not identity. They mustn’t assert that we keep women’s protective spaces for biological women to ensure their physical safety, regardless of how they identify. Because it isn’t our identities that are at risk—it’s our bodily integrity.”

Shrier argued that if members of congress passed the bill “in the name of inclusivity, you’ll have made American life far less safe, less fair, and less inclusive for women and girls.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said at the hearing that bills can be “tailored to prevent injustices,” but the language of the Equality Act is “sweeping.” 

“It would fundamentally manipulate how our society deals with the subjects of sex, gender, and faith,” he said. He named Catholic hospitals as one type of entity that could run into legal challenges under the law. 

Supporters of the law claimed that it would prevent discrimination.

Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) - a Catholic pro-abortion member who unseated pro-life congressman Dan Lipinski in a 2020 primary - said at the hearing that she is the mother of a transgender child and belives the bill would “ensure Americans like my daughter are afforded the same civil rights already extended to every other American.” 

Meanwhile, Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in his written testimony that the Equality Act “is fair, it is just, and it is the right legislation to move our democracy forward.”

“The promise of our democracy is as yet unfulfilled, but with the Equality Act, we have the opportunity to move our nation that much closer to that promise,” David wrote. “And by doing so, we can deliver equality not in the abstract—but in the lived experiences of millions of Americans, and for generations to come.”  

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