Baptist leaders square off on Equality Act

The east front of United States Capitol at Capitol Hilll.

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Baptist leaders offered starkly different assessments of the Equality Act, a measure that would ban discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

At least one called it “a significant attack on religious liberty,” while another warned against “alarmist rhetoric that is overblown and misleading.”

Southern Baptist Convention leader voiced opposition to the Equality Act both before and after its passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Would have ‘harmful consequences’

Russell Moore 150
Russell Moore

Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the Equality Act “poorly named,” saying it would “punish faith-based charities for their core religious beliefs.”

“Every human being ought to be treated with dignity, but government policy must continue to respect differences of belief,” Moore said.

The Equality Act “would have harmful consequences, and it should not be passed into law,” he asserted.

J.D. Greear

SBC President J.D. Greear said LGBT individuals should be “treated as equals and protected as citizens,” but he insisted the Equality Act constitutes “a significant attack on religious liberty.”

“It is governmental overreach, seeking to normalize a view of sexuality and gender that Jews, Christians, Muslims and millions of Americans from other religious backgrounds have found not only wrong but harmful for humanity, forcing that viewpoint on us and on our children,” Greear asserted.

Support for ‘broad goals of the Equality Act’

In contrast, Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, offered support for “the broad goals of the Equality Act,” while adding it “could be more explicit about religious exemptions.”

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Amanda Tyler

BJC “supports protections that are necessary to ensure that all people have access to opportunities, including employment, housing, and basic goods and services,” Tyler wrote in a March 5 Twitter thread. Protections for LGBT individuals and religious freedom are “complementary,” she asserted.

“Freedom for ALL should be our aim. It’s not a zero-sum game,” Tyler tweeted. “Unfortunately, some of the rhetoric around the Equality Act has pitted these two concepts of nondiscrimination and religious freedom against each other.”

As passed by the House of Representatives, the Equality Act included a provision that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—a bipartisan bill BJC spearheaded in 1993—could not provide a claim or defense.

Actually, even without that carve-out, Tyler noted it is “not at all clear that RFRA would provide exemptions from the Equality Act.”

“Courts generally have held that compliance with nondiscrimination laws is a compelling government interest and have denied almost all RFRA challenges to such laws,” she tweeted.

‘Could be more explicit about religious exemptions’

Even so, in House debate—not to mention on social media—opponents of the Equality Act framed the RFRA carve-out as a serious frontal attack on religious freedom.

“The alarmist rhetoric is overblown and misleading,” Tyler asserted. “But perhaps there is a better way to support the aims of the bill and protect religious freedom.”

Civil rights laws include explicit religious exemptions—including for houses of worship and other religious organizations—that would not be affected by the Equality Act, she insisted.

“The Equality Act could be more explicit about religious exemptions, including for houses of worship,” Tyler tweeted. “Clarity would address many of the far-flung hypotheticals used by the bill’s opponents and show the bill’s supporters value both nondiscrimination and religious freedom.”

As the Senate debates the Equality Act, Tyler said, her agency looks forward to working with others to build support both for legal protection of LGBT citizens and for religious freedom.

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