Protecting people from discrimination should not be a partisan issue.
The good news is that, for the American public, it’s not. A recent PRRI poll found that 83 percent of Americans — which includes strong majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents — support nondiscrimination laws that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from discrimination.
Still, there is an obstacle standing in the way of Congress acting according to the will of the majority of Americans and passing a federal law that does just that: the claim by some Republicans and religious groups that LGBTQ rights stand in conflict with religious rights.
US Senator Mitt Romney of Utah is among the Republicans voicing opposition to the House-passed Equality Act, which would extend the current federal law barring discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and other protected categories to also cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Romney cited the lack of “strong religious liberty protections” in the bill’s language as reason for his opposition.
Religious-based groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention raise more hyperbolic alarms, calling the legislation “the most significant threat to religious liberty ever considered in the United States Congress.”
The truth is that few rights in America have more robust protections under the Constitution, as well as federal, state, and local laws, than the right to believe, worship, and express religious views as one wishes. Protecting sincerely held religious beliefs is a pillar of American law, as it should be. Nothing about a law shielding people from bigoted policies and practices stands in the way of that.
In fact, the Equality Act would leave in place an exemption for religious entities that would allow them to, for example, give preference to people of their faith in employment and housing decisions.
But it won’t allow religion to be used as a sword to infringe on the protected rights of others — especially when such claims, like the false assertion that the Bible’s story of the curse of Ham justified slavery and racial bigotry, are unfounded.
And that is why the Equality Act’s provision barring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from being used as a defense for discriminatory conduct — the very provision drawing the ire of Republicans — is so crucial. That statute, passed by Congress and signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, was meant to protect religious liberties — particularly the rights of religious minorities — and enjoyed broad support at the time of its passage.
But in the nearly two decades since, the law has been stretched far beyond its intended purpose, serving as a basis for actions such as private companies denying spousal benefits to same-sex couples or adoption agencies refusing to consider gay or transgender people as potential parents. With the Equality Act, Congress can make clear it never intended to allow organizations or individuals to claim a God-given right to discriminate.
“The government has a compelling interest in enforcing nondiscrimination law, and it’s not over-broad to say you can’t discriminate if discrimination is the problem the law is addressing,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel and director of law and policy at the nonprofit advocacy organization Lambda Legal.
Even Justice Neil Gorsuch — one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative jurists — noted that there is ample room for LGBTQ protections and religious rights to coexist, in a 6-3 decision last year extending federal employment discrimination protections to including sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We are also deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution; that guarantee lies at the heart of our pluralistic society,” Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “But worries about how Title VII may intersect with religious liberties are nothing new.” Gorsuch underscored that the existing federal law religious rights exclusion and the First Amendment already provide religious protections.
Laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination are already in place in 23 states and the District of Columbia. But that still leaves an estimated nearly 4 million people in America legally unprotected from biased treatment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Pizer said a Lambda Legal report released this week detailing more than 4,000 claims of discriminatory conduct based on sexual orientation or gender identity received last year by the organization’s help line makes clear that the need for protections is real.
“It reflects the real problems people are having,” Pizer said, from discrimination in the workplace and difficulty obtaining identification documents to being targets of harassment and violence.
But Americans are already on board with granting them protections that they need. As a person of faith, I can only pray that members of the Senate vote to do right by them.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.