Two competing bills are being introduced in Congress this week. One, called the Equality Act, aims to ban discrimination against LGBT Americans. The other, the Orwellian-named First Amendment Defense Act, aims to preserve discrimination against LGBT Americans on the grounds of (you guessed it!) religious belief.
Good: The Equality Act
Currently, laws protecting the rights of LGBT Americans vary from state to state. As Representative David Cicilline said, “In most states, a same-sex couple can get married on Saturday, post pictures on Facebook on Sunday, and then risk being fired from their job or kicked out of their apartment on Monday.”
In many states, it’s legal for an employer to fire a worker for being gay, or for a landlord to refuse to rent an apartment to a queer tenant. Merchants, like grocery store owners or mechanics, can also refuse to serve LGBT customers in some states. Even medical personnel can refuse to treat LGBT patients in some areas. Last February, a pediatrician in Michigan refused to provide health care to a six-day-old infant because the baby’s parents were a lesbian couple.
The Equality Act would ban anti-LGBT discrimination nationwide by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes already protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equality Act aims to prohibit “discrimination against LGBT Americans in public accommodations, education, federal financial assistance, employment, housing, credit and federal jury service.”
Furthermore, the Equality Act “clarifies that where sex-segregated facilities exist, individuals must be admitted in accordance with their gender identity.” In other words, high school administrators could not force a trans boy to use the girls’ bathroom; a gym couldn’t forbid a trans woman from changing in the women’s locker room.
However, the Equality Act does make an exception for religious organizations. The act states:
The revised statute would continue to allow religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies to hire only individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with their religious activities.
So rest easy, religious organizations: you can still be as bigoted as you want! But everyone else will have to stop being terrible or face legal consequences.
Evil: The First Amendment Defense Act
Republican politicians and conservative groups are retaliating by shoving their own bill into the Senate, the First Amendment Defense Act. It’s a harsh, Draconian law that the ACLU is calling “Indiana on Steroids,” referring to Indiana’s infamous Religious Freedom Restoration law, which permitted anti-LGBT discrimination on religious grounds.
The First Amendment Defense Act is even more extreme than Indiana’s law. While Indiana’s law gave religious people the right to discriminate against LGBT people, the First Amendment Defense Act gives religious people the right to discriminate against anyone who has sex outside of a heterosexual marriage.
The text of the bill reads:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal Government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.
Under the First Amendment Defense Act, a landlord could refuse to rent an apartment to an unmarried couple. A business could fire an employee for being a single parent. A doctor could refuse to offer care to a patient who lost their virginity without getting married.
The First Amendment Defense Act is sponsored by Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-ID), and has 136 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. Only one co-sponsor (Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski) is a Democrat; the other 135 are all Republicans.
Who Will the Victor Be?
Will the Republicans pass the First Amendment Defense Act? Probably not. The law goes too far. It punishes heterosexuals as well as queer people, and even conservative Americans have warmed up to the idea that having sex is fun. The overwhelming majority of Americans have sex outside of marriage. Alienating 80 to 90 percent of voters is probably not a great political strategy.
Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration law backfired spectacularly for homophobes. When it passed, the rest of the country was disgusted. Businesses, out-of-state governments and other groups threatened to boycott Indiana. Terrified of the financial consequences, the state’s government caved within a week. In the unlikely event that the First Amendment Defense Act passes, we should expect to see a similar outcome.
Furthermore, we can count on President Obama to veto the bill.
What about the Equality Act? Will Congress vote for a nationwide ban on anti-LGBT bigotry? It’s iffy. A little while ago, the US Senate failed to pass legislation that would have protected queer students from discrimination in public schools. But it failed by only a tiny margin: a mere eight votes. A slight majority of the Senate supported the bill: 52 senators, including a few Republicans.
What happens in Congress this week could change the lives of millions of Americans, for better or for worse. Instead of waiting nervously for the outcome, why not contact your congressperson to make sure they make the right decision?
(featured image via Guillaume Paumier)