For years the religious right has trumpeted a lie: that its opposition to LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections has to do with, or is even required by, religion. It has even, on occasion, distorted the meaning of religious freedom to make this argument.
But as its opposition to the Equality Act, which passed the House on Thursday, shows, the idea that LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections undermine protections for religious Americans is an egregious mistruth.
The Equality Act would expand protections for religious Americans by updating the public spaces where the Civil Rights Act applies. Under current federal law, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against someone in a retail store or a taxicab, for example, for being visibly Christian (or Muslim or Hindu — or anything else). The Equality Act would ensure that Americans’ religious freedom is protected in those places, preserve all of the religious liberty provisions of our current civil rights laws and protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
That truth was not an obstacle to the legislation’s opponents. “The Equality Act would discriminate against people of faith,” a group of Catholic bishops warned; Franklin Graham warned that it was “very dangerous.” Similar exhortations have been made against the bill in past years: Televangelist Pat Robertson told his audience in 2019, “If you want to bring the judgment of God on this nation, you just keep this stuff up,” and radio host Eric Metaxas that year called the legislation “madness.”
The religious right’s loud, often bigoted opposition to the Equality Act obscures the fact that most Americans who self-identify as religious support this legislation.
As the weakness of the religious right’s arguments has become more and more visible, and as more and more Americans who identify as religious reject the edicts to discriminate, its fearmongering about the dignity of LGBTQ people has shifted, both over the past decades and more recently. These days, it focuses on scaring Americans about transgender people, from their participation in youth sports to the standards of medical care for transgender youth, about which it spouts vicious fictions. All of its fearmongering is based on falsehoods or stereotypes, like those that have been proven incorrect in states that already have nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ youths playing sports.
But facts have never stopped Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., before. She captured the essence of opposition to Equality Act on the House floor Wednesday in a speech scorning all transgender Americans and laced with religious rhetoric. She then proceeded to do the opposite of “love your neighbor” by singling out and attacking the transgender daughter of Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., in tweets and then with a sign outside her own Capitol Hill office, about which she also tweeted.
Still, it is not just the lies the religious right tells about transgender youth or religious freedom that should rankle other Americans of faith: Its loud, often bigoted opposition to the Equality Act obscures the fact that most Americans who self-identify as religious support this legislation.
The vast majority of Americans — 83 percent — favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing. That includes majorities of every major religious group in the country, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Even 59 percent of white evangelical Protestants — the largest and most reliably conservative bloc of religious voters — support the type of protections in the Equality Act.
As the weakness of the religious right’s arguments has become more and more visible, its fearmongering about the dignity of LGBTQ people has shifted.
Americans of all religious backgrounds also reject the distorted “religious freedom” framing of the religious right’s opposition to the Equality Act, as outlined Wednesday by Greene. When given a choice between these two statements —”Everyone is free to follow their religious beliefs and practices in their personal lives, provided they do not cause harm to others,” and “Everyone is free to follow their religious beliefs and practices in every part of their lives, including performing their jobs, even if that means excluding certain groups of people” — 89 percent of Americans, as well as majorities of all major religious groups, chose the former.
All of this is among the reasons that over 100 faith-based organizations have endorsed the Equality Act, including Catholic, evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist and Hindu groups. And faith groups that recognize the dignity of LGBTQ people have a faithful ally in the White House: President Joe Biden — one of the most overtly religious presidents since Jimmy Carter — has made the Equality Act a priority for his administration.
Despite not representing the majority of Americans of faith on this issue, the religious right will do all it can in the coming weeks to derail the Equality Act by purporting to represent those very Americans. It is certainly its prerogative to advocate against civil rights, but Americans deserve to know that faith communities and people of faith largely support this historic legislation.
And most religious Americans understand that the response to LGBTQ discrimination most in keeping with the highest callings of the tenets of their various traditions is to enact laws that protect everyone.
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, delivered a powerful witness on the House floor Thursday when he said, “God created every person in this room,” referring to his LGBTQ colleagues. “Are you saying that God made a mistake? This is not about God. It’s about men who choose to discriminate against other people because they have the power to do so.”
He then cast his vote with the majority of his colleagues, representing the majority of Americans, in favor of this historic civil rights legislation.