Equality Act advances amid warnings over religious freedom

shutterstock 1222790065 Hand wearing gay pride rainbow wristband making a power fist gesture in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Via Shutterstock

The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee has approved a controversial equality bill paving the way for a full vote on the floor of the House. Critics of the bill warn that the legislation will damage religious liberty and conscience rights.

The Equality Act forbids "discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system."

The bill also defines the terms "sex," "sexual orientation," and "gender identity."

Critics of the measure have pointed out the lack of conscience protections in the text, raising concerns that it would encroach on basic freedoms of speech and religion.

Ryan Anderson, author and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told CNA that he is concerned that the Equality Act would entrench transgender ideology in American law.

"The Equality Act would penalize many Americans who believe that we are created male and female and that male and female are created for each other," said Anderson.

The bill also establishes that "public accommodation" includes all "places or establishments that provide (1) exhibitions, recreation, exercise, amusement, gatherings, or displays; (2) goods, services, or programs; and (3) transportation services."

It also includes a provision that would require people be able to access the shared facility, such as a locker room, restroom, or dressing room, that they feel best corresponds with their gender identity.

"It would violate the privacy and safety of women and girls, the conscience rights of doctors and other medical professionals, and the free speech and religious liberty rights of countless professionals," Anderson said.

Conscience rights and religious liberty related to issues of gender identity and sexual orientation have become increasingly contested issues. A Catholic hospital group was sued in March after refusing to allow an elective hysterectomy procedure as part of a gender reassignment surgery.

Stephen White, Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and author of the book Red, White, Blue, and Catholic, told CNA that the measure was intentionally radical in scope.

"The Equality Act is deliberately written to give radical sexual ideology the force of law: nature, religion, custom, science, and common sense be damned."

The bill is supported by the Business Coalition for the Equality Act, whose affiliates include major corporations such as Amazon, AT&T, Facebook, Google, Verizon, and Visa.

White warned that the trend of large business backing a deeply progeressive social and political agenda is a cause for real concern.

"That such a bill, which explicitly circumscribes religious objections to the LGBT agenda, enjoys the enthusiastic support of so many major corporations ought to be a wake-up call to anyone who still needs it," White said.

The bill, introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI),  is sponsored by all House Democrats, except Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL). Two House Republicans, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and John Katko (R-NY), also co-sponsor the bill. It passed the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, in a 22-10 vote along party lines.

Lipinski's refusal to co-sponsor the bill has been highlighted by Marie Newman who is challenging him in a primary election. Newman said in a fundraising email that Lipinski was "bucking the Democratic Party" on the issue of LGBT rights.

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Lipinski, a practicing Catholic and one of the few vocally pro-life Democrats in Congress, said that he is opposed to discrimination, but is concerned that the legislation could encroach on religious liberty.

"I believe that LGBTQ people should be protected from discrimination and afforded equal treatment under law in public life," said Lipinski to Roll Call. "LGBTQ members are our neighbors, colleagues, friends and peers, and their sexual orientation or identity should not lead them to be treated any less than others."

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