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New LGBTQ Rights Bill Offers Religious Liberty Protection–But Is It Enough?

Image source: Adobe Stock
Image source: Adobe Stock

When House Democrats unanimously passed the Equality Act on May 17, it was another moment of concern for conservatives and people of faith.

The sweeping LGBTQ legislation expands the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes but fails to add any new religious exemptions for what the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) calls "the inevitable conflicts this would have created for religious organizations."

For the CCCU, those conflicts include the ability to hire like-minded faculty and staff and its students' access to federal financial aid.

Wheaton College's Ed Stetzer explained, "the Equality Act would, in essence, say that our beliefs are unacceptable and that we must change."

But while the Equality Act is stalling out for now, many faith leaders are well aware that its trajectory has momentum in Democratic circles and that conservatives need a strategy for the long haul. 

With LGBTQ activists gaining the upper hand in politics, the news media, and entertainment circles, the conflict with religious liberty is a ticking time bomb for believers. It's why some have worked for years to create legislative solutions.

"You always prepare for the unexpected," one faith leader told CBN News. "You don't draft legislation overnight."

For several years starting in 2015, The First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) became the solution for conservatives and the faith community. The bill ensured that the federal government and its agencies could not penalize individuals or organizations that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. 

But despite Republican control in both the House and Senate, lawmakers never voted on the bill.

Now, a unique group of faith leaders and LGBTQ activists are offering an alternative to both pieces of legislation. Their initiative, known as Fairness for All, aims to provide federal protection for LGBTQ people and people of faith.

To do so, the bill expands the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity and offers religious exemptions.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), says it's time for lawmakers to take leadership on the issue.

"It's better if the courts don't have to resolve these issues one at a time, often in conflicting findings, over many, many years," he said at a press conference announcing the initiative. "That leads to uncertainty and in too many cases, strife and conflict."

But a host of conservative Christian organizations say the religious exemptions in Fairness for All don't go far enough.

Greg Baylor, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, says the bill would force public and faith-based schools to give boys and men unprecedented access to traditional private spaces for girls and women.

"We're concerned about any piece of legislation like Fairness for All that would compel public school districts and all recipients of federal financial assistance to violate their beliefs about the distinction between men and women," he told CBN News. "We're also concerned about…{requiring} every school in America and every federally funded education institution in America to allow biological males that identify as women to play on girls' sports teams."

John Stonestreet, president of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview, cites other loopholes like Christian business owners and calls the bill "the wrong piece of legislation at the wrong time."

He and other conservatives worry that it elevates sexual orientation and gender identity by giving them the same protections as race. "The act would enshrine into law something that simply is not true and for Christians that's got to be a non-starter: that alternative sexual orientations and transgender identity are equal to race," he said.

The CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra helped to draft the bill and cites 26 provisions around religious liberty that will help faith-based institutions like CCCU schools.

She warns that time is running out to cement such protections.

"There is in the general population a move to coerce religious organizations to adopt a non-faith related set of principles. We've seen this with accreditation," she said.

Tyler Deaton, the president of the American Unity Fund and an LGBTQ supporter of the bill, says he hopes more conservatives and liberals will see Fairness for All as a way to advance together.

"Eventually, both of these sides and both of these bills are going to have to start working together to find something that can actually pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by a president," he told CBN News.

For now, the Human Rights Campaign and many other LGBTQ organizations oppose the legislation, citing "massive loopholes and carve-outs."

A number of conservative organizations, including the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom and Concerned Women for America also oppose it.

Those supporting it include the CCCU, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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