Will Congress Make Some People More Equal than Others?

A bill was introduced earlier this month in Congress that is deceptively called “The Equality Act” (H.R. 5 / S. 788). It is the latest and most robust version of bills that have been kicking around in Congress for many years. Its ostensible purpose is to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of protected categories under federal civil rights laws. Its effect will be to make Christians and others who adhere to traditional sexual beliefs into second-class citizens.

Certainly, every human person must be protected against unjust discrimination. This is a bedrock principle of human rights, and it has continually been upheld by the Church for many, many years. Specifically with regard to homosexual persons, the Church could not be clearer: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).

But, despite its name, this bill will actually go much further than eliminating unjust discrimination in housing, education and employment. It is specifically designed to suppress the rights of religious people and institutions who dare to dissent from current progressive sexual dogma. This is done by one small section of the bill, which states “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

This is an astonishing provision to find in a proposed federal law. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed by a virtually unanimous Congress, establishes that the federal government may not take any action that substantially burdens religious beliefs and practices unless there is a compelling reason and the offending action is done in the narrowest possible way. It was passed specifically to protect unpopular religions from oppression by majorities. But since 1993, society has changed dramatically, and it is no longer fringe religions like Santeria or Native American faiths that are unpopular with the powers-that-be. Now, its mainstream orthodox Christianity that is out of favor, particularly anyone who adheres to the traditional teachings of our faith about sex and sexuality.

By including this provision, the Equality Act would stigmatize and penalize any Christian who still believes that God made man and woman in His own image and likeness, that the differences between the sexes are significant and normative, and that morally acceptable sexual behavior is only between a man and a woman in the bonds of marriage. No matter how sincere your religious beliefs, no matter how severe the burden imposed on you, no matter how trivial the government policy, no matter how meritless the discrimination claim, you would never be able to assert your religious freedom as a defense if this bill passes. I’m not sure that there has ever been a single instance in American history in which such a fundamental right as religious liberty has been specifically eliminated by a federal statute. After all, a right without a remedy is no right at all – so if the Equality Act passes, it will effectively eliminate the right to religious freedom.

As for specifics about the kinds of harm that would be caused by this bill, in a letter to Congress, the US Bishops noted that it would:

  • Regulate thought, belief, and speech — It would compel people to conform to the new orthodoxy about sexuality or risk being sued for discrimination or creating a hostile environment. It will mandate inclusion of the new sexual orthodoxy in every training program in every workplace and school.
  • Hinder quality health care — It would require health professionals and institutions to perform medical procedures associated with “gender transition” that are objectively harmful, such as mutilation of genitals and hormone replacements. Catholic hospitals have already been sued over their refusal to maim patients because of their desire to change their “gender identity”.
  • Endanger privacy — Because there is no objective definition of “gender identity”, men and women would no longer be assured of personal privacy in traditionally sex-segregated spaces such as restrooms and locker rooms.
  • Threaten charitable services — It would force religious charitable agencies to either violate their principles or shut down. This is happening right now in Michigan to Christian adoption and foster care agencies, and it has happened in other locations as well.
  • Exclude people from various businesses, career paths and livelihoods — Professions like law, psychology and medicine will all be closed to those who do not wish to conform to gender ideology. Businesses will likewise be targeted to force conformity – just ask all those in the wedding industry who don’t want to participate in same-sex weddings and are being harassed by litigation or civil rights commissions.

In his great Memorial and Remonstrance,  James Madison made a powerful argument for religious freedom from any encroachment by the government. His words are worth quoting at length, because they embody the deep respect for the freedom of religions that was held by the Founders of our nation:

Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right… It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society…We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.

Because if Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body…The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.

Our government is now sliding towards a kind of totalitarianism on sexual matters, propelled by a tiny minority of people who have managed to gain the allegiance of a very powerful political party that now holds a majority in the House of Representatives. We are already living under such a regime here in New York, and this special interest group is seeking to extend it across the nation.

We need to be  very clear about the injustice this Equality Act is seeking to bring about. It is seeking to reduce Christians into second-class citizens whose rights are not to be respected when they conflict with those of the favored few. That is not equality at all, but tyranny.

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