House passes LGBT Equality Act; conservatives say it 'undermines women’s equality'

Participants carry a large rainbow flag toward the U.S. Capitol during an LGBT demonstration in Washington, Oct. 11, 2009.
Participants carry a large rainbow flag toward the U.S. Capitol during an LGBT demonstration in Washington, Oct. 11, 2009. | (Photo: Reuters/Molly Riley)

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act Friday afternoon, hotly-debated legislation seeking to codify LGBT non-discrimination protections into federal law.

H.R. 5 passed by a vote of 236-173. The bill would expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to also ban discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition” in housing, public accommodations and hiring. 

The bill was first introduced in 2015 but never passed in the Republican-controlled House. However, it is unlikely to be voted on in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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But LGBT advocates and supporters consider the bill’s passage in the House historic and a sign of progress because it is the first time a comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill has come to the floor in Congress

“To bring our nation closer to the founding promise of liberty and justice for all, we, today, pass the Equality Act and finally, fully end discrimination against LGBTQ Americans,” Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said on the House floor.  

“LGBTQ people deserve full civil rights protections in the workplace, in every place — in education, housing, credit, jury duty, service and public accommodations.  No one should be forced to lose his or her job, their home or to live in fear because of who they are and whom they love.”

Christian conservatives and religious freedom advocates have voiced strong opposition to the bill in fear it could encumber religious freedom for communities and organizations that uphold traditional teaching on issues like marriage, abortion and sexuality. 

“Americans are becoming more tolerant every day, which is why the Equality Act is so counterproductive,” Utah Republican Mike Lee wrote in a tweet. “It unnecessarily pits communities against each other and divides our nation when patience and understanding are so sorely needed.”

With the vote along party lines, Idaho Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher announced in a video Friday that he was voting against the bill and questioned if his Democrat colleagues even read the legislation before voting in favor of it.

“I don’t think they read it. I don’t think they really understand what is in it because women’s rights get eliminated,” Fulcher said.  

Fulcher argued that the bill would "erase gender from federal law."

“For example, if I were a male inmate at a penitentiary and I identified as a woman that day, I could demand to be incarcerated on the female side of the penitentiary. If I were a male athlete and I wanted to be placed in the women’s draw, I could identify as a woman," he said. "School curriculum: it could be mandated to have transgender training. Adoption agencies could be mandated that only certain people can adopt children. The list goes on. The traditional families get eroded and religious freedom is no more because religions identify gender.”

Critics have expressed concern that the Equality Act opens the door for more potential legal battles spawned by the intersection of LGBT rights and First Amendment rights of religious conservatives who feel homosexuality and transgender identity is unbiblical.

In response to the House vote, lawyer Kristen Waggoner, who successfully defended Christian baker Jack Phillips at the U.S. Supreme Court last year for his refusal to bake a custom cake for a gay wedding, argued that the Equality Act fails to respect “constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.”

“It undermines women’s equality by denying female athletes fair competition in sports, depriving women of business opportunities designed for them, and forcing them to share private, intimate spaces with men who identify as female,” Waggoner, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement.

“Like similar state and local laws, it would also force Americans to participate in events and speak messages that violate their core beliefs, all in the name of an ‘equality’ that tolerates no dissenters.”

Across the nation, conservative Christian business owners, organizations and health professionals have come under legal fire for refusing to violate their religious or moral convictions relating to various issues including abortion, marriage, sexuality, gender identity, and gender reassignment.

A group of 21 Christian conservative pastors and activists including Franklin Graham and James Dobson urged members of Congress this week to vote against the bill in a letter stating that the legislation carries with it religious freedom concerns.

The letter argued that the language of the bill indicates that the bill is also the “largest expansion of taxpayer-funded abortion this country has ever seen.”

"[T]he Equality Act is unacceptable because it is anti-life and creates a right to demand abortion from health care providers,” the letter contends. “The termination of human life in the womb is unacceptable to any biblically and historically faithful Christian. The responsibility to care for the ‘least of these’ (Matt. 25:40) is a fundamental responsibility of Christ’s church, and any proposal that undermines a culture of life must be rejected.”

While Christian conservatives have spoken out against the Equality Act, left-leaning Christians have backed it, including Rev. Jennifer Butler, the head of the clergy network Faith in Public Life and former chair of the White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships during the Obama administration.

“My faith teaches that everyone is created in the Holy image of God,” Butler said in a statement. “The passage of the Equality Act is an important step to make sure that the innate dignity of every person is recognized and protected in our country.”

Waggoner argued that LGBT activists want to “con” Americans into thinking that “disagreement on important matters such as marriage and human sexuality is a form of discrimination that requires the government to enforce one view over another.”

“But that is obviously wrong,” she said. “This bill undermines human dignity by threatening the fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and conscience that the First Amendment guarantees for every citizen. Americans deserve better than the profound inequality that this intolerant, deceptively titled legislation offers.”

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