What is the Equality Act?
by ERLC staff
This week, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled for a floor vote on a controversial bill titled the Equality Act. This legislation, filed as H.R. 5, seeks to expand the definition of “sex” to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (SOGI) and would revise every title of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add these categories as new protected classes in the federal code. Last Congress, the Equality Act passed in the House, but the bill died in the Senate.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention affirms the full dignity of every human being. At the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the messengers passed a resolution to “reaffirm the sacredness and full dignity and worthiness of respect and Christian love for every single human being, without any reservation.” But the Equality Act does not advance the cause of human dignity.
If passed, H.R. 5 would punish faith-based charities for their core religious beliefs about human dignity and marriage and would undermine decades of civil rights protections for women and girls. Also alarming is the fact that House leadership is expected to bring these sweeping changes to the Civil Rights Act to the floor for a vote without holding a single committee hearing, debate, or amendment process.
This bill would substantially undermine religious liberty protections in the United States. America has long been a place where people with different views and beliefs have lived at peace alongside each other. Though America has not perfectly lived up to this ideal of a shared nation, it was central to our founding as persecuted religious minorities sought safe harbor in this land. Though cleverly named, the Equality Act is out of step with that American ideal. Equality cannot be achieved while eliminating other basic, fundamental freedoms. Of particular note, the bill would essentially gut the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a bill which passed with broad bipartisan support and was signed by President Clinton.
By undermining RFRA, H.R. 5 would force faith-based child welfare organizations to abandon their deeply held religious beliefs or be shut down by the state. The state-forced closures of such agencies is especially detrimental at a time when multiple crises – including the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing opioid epidemic – have led to increases in the number of children in need of services.
What does the bill mean for women and girls?
Most strikingly, H.R. 5 undermines decades of hard-fought civil rights protections for women and girls. Single-gender spaces, such as locker rooms or shelters, would no longer be protected by law. This departure from a legal understanding of gender as male and female makes women and girls vulnerable to biological males being in their private spaces. For example, shelters for those women and girls escaping domestic abuse or homelessness would be forced to house biological men who identify as female. This legislation disregards the privacy and safety concerns women rightly have about sharing sleeping quarters and intimate facilities with the opposite sex.
Another example of the harm this legislation poses to women and girls is in athletics and academics. Since 1972, Title IX has advanced women’s sports and scholarship in remarkable ways. If enacted, the Equality Act would threaten female competition as both areas would then be open to biological males as well.
Are there pro-life concerns in the Equality Act?
Yes. The Equality Act would be the most pro-abortion bill ever passed by Congress. H.R. 5 would redefine the term “sex” to also include “pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.” This language would roll back federal law that protects the consciences of pro-life nurses and physicians who object to participating in abortions because of their deeply held religious or moral beliefs. These conscience protections carry decades of bipartisan consensus – a consensus that no person should be compelled to participate in an act they believe to be gravely immoral. H.R. 5 would also jeopardize the longstanding Hyde Amendment that protects federal taxpayer dollars from funding abortion. There is nothing equalizing about forcing Americans to fund abortion through taxpayer dollars.
How has the ERLC been involved?
The ERLC has worked tirelessly to defeat this bill. We have partnered with a broad coalition of more than 85 faith-based nonprofits, religious entities, and institutions of higher education to highlight the dangers of H.R. 5. We have raised these concerns with members of Congress and the administration through coalition letters and countless meetings with members, administration officials, and their staff. We have also engaged in public advocacy against the bill by producing a suite of resources to inform Christians and the broader public about the pernicious threat of H.R. 5.
Unfortunately, we expect the bill to pass the House of Representatives this week, although with a narrower margin than the last Congress. However, 60 votes are required to overcome the filibuster in the Senate, which would bring the bill to a vote. In its current form, H.R. 5 would likely fall short of this threshold.
The ERLC will continue promoting and defending the human dignity and religious liberty of all people on Capitol Hill, before the courts, and in the public square.
As Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, often notes, “A government that can pave over the consciences of some can steamroll over dissent everywhere.” The ERLC will continue to highlight how the Equality Act erodes fundamental freedoms and undermines the ability of Americans of diverse beliefs to work together for the common good.