WASHINGTON – A historic battle over LGBTQ rights and religious freedom came to a head Wednesday on Capitol Hill where lawmakers and activists voiced their support and opposition for the so-called Equality Act.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing allowed both sides to articulate their positions.
"Discrimination remains a daily reality for members of the LGBTQ community," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) who joined the hearing virtually and is the first openly gay member of the Senate.
Baldwin says a lot of progress has been made for LGBTQ Americans since she first came to Washington in 1999 but that more is needed. She and her Democratic colleagues think the Equality Act is the next step.
"A recent 2020 study found that one out of three LGBTQ Americans, including three out of five transgender Americans, experienced discrimination over the past year," said Chairman Sen. Dick Durban (D-IL). "And that's why it's critical."
Republicans made clear they agree that discrimination against any American is wrong. At the same time, they want to ensure religious freedom is protected.
"Let me be very clear. No person should be discriminated against in America," said Sen. James Lankford (R-OK). "That's who we are. It's a basic Constitutional principle."
But Lankford pointed to the issue of life and how the Equality Act would force employers and institutions like churches to provide health insurance that covers abortion in violation of their constitutionally protected religious rights.
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"For the people that believe that children of any age or size or stage of development of life, we're not bigots," said Lankford. "We're people who live by our genuine faith and see a child as a child."
The Equality Act would expand the 1964 Civil Rights Act by broadening the definition of protected classes to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) raised concerns about what the legislation would mean for religious institutions like Catholic and Methodist hospitals. He also shared the story of one young woman who was forced to compete against biological men in her high school.
Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and Family Research Council oppose the Equality Act and nearly 60 black pastors have signed a letter in conjunction with the AND Campaign voicing their opposition to it too.
This group of pastors is endorsing the "Fairness for All Act" instead which would offer LGBTQ civil rights protections in areas like housing and employment while still protecting religious freedom.
The Equality Act faces an uphill battle in the Senate. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said she'll only support it if amendments are made, including religious exemptions. Other Republican moderates like Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also oppose it on the basis of religious freedom.