“Caveat lector” is Latin for ‘let the reader be aware.’ A so-called “Equality Act” is reportedly slated for a vote in the US Senate sometime this summer. The bill constitutes one of the most significant pieces of social legislation in decades, and it poses a grave threat to religious liberty. A real misnomer, the “Equality Act” would substantially change the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by incorporating “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” into its provisions. This would do two basic things: 1) it would prohibit “discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, housing, employment, credit, and the jury system; and 2) it would expand the definition of “public accommodations” to includes places that provide “exhibitions, recreation, exercise, amusement, gatherings, or displays,” along with “goods, services, or programs,” and “transportation services.” In so doing, the legislation would grant sweeping new authorities to the federal government, including enabling the Department of Justice to intervene in any cases where there has been a claim of “discrimination” based on sexual orientation or gender identity. As the application of Civil Rights law in recent decades has shown, the government quite often takes a far more aggressive interpretation of such powers than ordinary Americans might imagine.
The “Equality Act” is about anything but equality. Contrary to its claims, the legislation actually would not require everyone to be treated with equal dignity. Instead, it would force Americans to accept transgender ideology, regardless of their religious beliefs.
For example, any federally funded institution—including schools and colleges—would be compelled to treat men who identify as women as females, and vice versa. Anyone who would deny such ideas would be engaging in legally punishable “discrimination.”
Perhaps most disturbingly, under the new definition of “public accommodations,” churches, synagogues, and mosques could be considered “public accommodations” as places that—according to the language of the “Equality Act”—provide space for “gatherings,” “displays,” or “programs.” The language is so vague that, theoretically, it would be impossible to exclude houses of worship from its provisions, and thus force religious people everywhere to violate their deeply held beliefs and convictions.
Additionally, the text of the act specifically denies that anyone can make a claim against its provisions under “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993,” which prevents any department or official of either the Federal or any state government from “substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.” In short, the “Equality Act” would clear the path for an unprecedented assault on religious liberty! The “Equality Act” was first passed by the House of Representatives in 2019, but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, thank God! During his campaign, then candidate Joe Biden promised to sign it into law within his first 100 days (now past), and his administration now has endorsed it. The House passed the “Equality Act” again, in March 2021, and it is now up to the Senate whether it will become the law of the land, given President Biden’s commitment to signing it.
Though this legislation would be dangerous to religious liberty, there could be a window of hope, for the Supreme Court’s religious liberty jurisprudence is robust and strong. Just recently the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Catholic Social Services v. Philadelphia. When the city discovered that the Catholic adoption agency does not certify same-sex couples, based on its belief that a mother and a father are both necessary to the proper raising of a child, the city refused to contract with them. The Supreme Court ruled that this was prohibited discrimination, and warned against disparaging religious beliefs. Likewise, in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, the Court offered similar warnings.
For the sake of religious liberty, Americans of faith must do all they can to prevent the passage of the Equality Act. Our U.S. Bishops are decidedly and vehemently against its passage. But, if Congress still insists on passing this radical social engineering bill, there still may be reason to hope that the Supreme Court will hold the line on a fundamental constitutional right against the latest extreme legislation. Let’s also pray that there is a modicum of sensibility among our Supreme Court justices, and that truth will prevail!