What the Equality Act could mean for Catholics

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Legal experts on Monday explained how the Equality Act could threaten the integrity of Catholic parishes, charities, and schools.

The Equality Act, passed by the U.S. House on Feb. 25, would amend federal civil rights law and create protected classes for sexual orientation and gender identity, extending those protections to all areas where race is currently protected.

On Monday, several Catholic dioceses hosted an online webinar "The Equality Act and What it Means for Catholics." A panel of legal experts explained how far-reaching the act is, and just how much it might affect religious practice in the United States.

By codifying and protecting gender ideology in law, the Equality Act would essentially outlaw the Church's teachings on the human person, said Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The act "would make acting on a true anthropology, a true vision of the human person – in many circumstances, it would treat that as if it were unjust discrimination," he said on Monday.

And by not including religious exemptions, the bill is essentially granting religious people who believe in the true nature of man and woman "the same religious liberty protections as it [the Civil Rights Act] does racists," Anderson said.

Monday's webinar was hosted by the Archdioceses of Los Angeles and New York, the Dioceses of Arlington and Green Bay, and the Catholic Conferences of Colorado and Virginia. 

Experts on Monday noted the expansive nature of the Equality Act, saying it would regulate a myriad of areas of public life including the mission of religious charities and non-profits.

"The Equality Act, however, would mandate how we serve others," said Robert Vega, a policy advisor to the U.S. bishops' conference (USCCB).

He explained that Section 3 of the bill extends to public accommodations and "greatly expands the types of entities covered" under civil rights law, to include any place of public gathering or any business or service. Thus, the law's onerous requirements could apply to hospitals, shelters, and possibly churches and funeral homes, Vega said.

Section 9 of the bill, meanwhile, "requires others to speak or act" in favor of gender ideology, Vega said. The act "overrides sex-separated facilities and programs" and "allows anyone else to self-identify in any way at any time," he said, thus allowing for men identifying as transgender women to access women's shelters and locker rooms.

Religious groups, churches, or organizations which serve people of all faiths could be considered public accommodations – and thus subject to the law, Vega explained.

"Catholic foster care and adoption would be forced to place with same-sex couples, which violates children's rights to a married mother and father, or be shut down," Vega said.

Support groups for women in crisis might have to be open to males, he noted. Church halls which serve people of all faiths might have to allow restroom access to people of the opposite sex. Even church grounds which host community events could be considered public accommodations, and thus forced to host events contrary to their faith.

Catholic hospitals, which serve everyone, would have to provide gender-transition procedures, and at least five Catholic health entities are currently in legal battles over similar state and local mandates, he noted.

The privacy of women could be at stake under the law, the panel experts warned.

Some conservatives have cited federal Title IX law – which prohibits sex discrimination in federally-funded education activities – as a defense of the integrity of women's sports and women-only spaces against transgender mandates.

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While the Equality Act technically does not amend Title IX, its Section 6 essentially overrides it by applying the act to federally-funded activities, Vega noted.

Furthermore, the act does not have religious protections that similar state laws have.

Dr. Gabrielle Girgis, an EPPC postdoctoral fellow, noted that religious business owners have recently been forced to serve same-sex wedding ceremonies, and that adoption agencies have been forced to match children with same-sex couples. Girgis said the Equality Act would continue those coercive mandates in many areas.

It is the "very first federal regulation to exempt itself" from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Girgis noted.

RFRA, a 1993 law, established a legal test for the government to meet when it violates someone's religious beliefs – thus giving people a chance to argue their beliefs in court. By exempting itself from RFRA, the Equality Act would not allow legal remedies for those claiming religious freedom violations under the law.

"In that respect, it is certainly the biggest and most aggressive effort so far to push traditional religious believers out of the public square," Girgis said of the Equality Act.

The act would create a right to sex-reassignment surgeries, and could create a right to an abortion, Girgis said.

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By adding "pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition" to a list of protected classes that cannot be discriminated against, the law could be interpreted to include abortion as "protected" pregnancy care. Federal law already bans discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, Girgis said, and with the addition of the Equality Act, a woman's decision to end a pregnancy could merit the same legal protection as the decision to sustain a pregnancy.

The bill will "almost certainly" be interpreted "to repeal the Hyde Amendment," policy that prohibits federal funding of abortions, Girgis said.

Greg Baylor, senior counsel with the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom which promotes religious freedom, said that ADF represents Downtown Hope women's shelter in Anchorage, Alaska. While a man identifying as a transgender woman recently sued for not being able to access the women-only shelter, Downtown Hope was ultimately ruled exempt from a local nondiscrimination ordinance.

Under the Equality Act, however, the shelter might not be so lucky, Baylor said. The Equality Act's "definition of public accommodation is much broader," Baylor said, and "explicitly includes shelters."

Schools receiving federal aid would be subject to the act, and even those schools not receiving federal dollars could be subject to it if they are considered places of public accommodation, Baylor said. 

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