WASHINGTON—A congressional proposal that seeks to balance religious freedom and equal protection for LGBT citizens has received a mixed reaction from Christian organizations.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduced the Fairness for All Act (H.R. 5331) in the U.S. House, asserting it would “balance the legitimate rights of both LGBT and religious communities,” he wrote in a guest commentary in The Salt Lake Tribune.
Stewart presented his bill—inspired by legislation the Utah state legislature passed in 2015—as an alternative to the Equality Act.
The Equality Act is broadly supported by LGBTQ advocacy groups and some major businesses but opposed by numerous conservative organizations and religious liberty groups. It would amend existing civil rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics, and it would limit the application of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
While the Fairness for All Act would provide similar protection for LGBT individuals, it would preserve the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protect the tax-exempt status of religious organizations and schools, protect adoption agencies and guard the religious liberty rights of small business owners, its proponents assert.
“In contract with the House-passed Equality Act, this legislation accomplished the protection of our LGBT communities from housing, employment and other forms of discrimination without compromising the religious liberties of America’s faith communities,” Stewart wrote.
Support from Christian colleges and others
Supporters of the Fairness for All Act include the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Texas Baptist schools that participate in the council include Baylor University, Dallas Baptist University, East Texas Baptist University, Hardin-Simmons University, Houston Baptist University, Howard Payne University and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, described the Fairness for All Act as “a solution-based approach that addresses the cultural tension surrounding religious freedom and LGBT rights.”
“The bill is both principled, a clear and demonstrable way for people of faith to ‘love our neighbor’ in the civic context, and pragmatic, in that the bill makes explicit many religious protections important to a rich and vibrant civil society. Orthodox Christian convictions are central to Christian colleges and universities, and there must be freedom to practice, teach and uphold those without penalty,” Hoogstra said.
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“In pairing LGBT civil rights and religious freedom, Fairness for All underscores that all persons are created in the image of God, implying dignity, value and worth. This approach represents civic pluralism at its best, in a society where people with deep differences can live alongside each other with respect and understanding.”
Religious groups that have endorsed the Fairness for All Act include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the North American Division of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Opposed by conservative Christians and LGBT activists
ERLC President Russell Moore acknowledged proponents of the Fairness for All Act “mean well,” but he described the legislation as “a wrong turn” and “counterproductive,” according to Baptist Press.
“Placing sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in this kind of legislation would have harmful, unintended consequences and make the situation worse in this country, both in terms of religious freedom and in terms of finding ways for Americans who disagree to work together for the common good,” Moore said.
Ryan Anderson, senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation, likewise criticized the act.
“Despite the undoubted good will of those who drafted and introduced the legislation, and despite some meaningful though insufficient protections for religious liberty, the bill is not in fact fair for all. Its protections for religious liberty come at the high cost of enshrining a misguided sexual and gender ideology into federal law. This will allow the federal government to use our civil rights laws as a sword to punish citizens who dissent from the reigning sexual orthodoxy,” Anderson wrote.
Ironically, major LGBTQ advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, GLAAD, PFLAG National and the Transgender Law Center line up alongside some conservative religious groups in opposing the Fairness for All Act.
In a joint statement—issued along with several civil rights organizations and other groups—they asserted the Fairness for All Act introduces “new, problematic provisions purportedly seeking to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity with broad exemptions, essentially licensing discrimination against LGBTQ people and women.”
BJC: Act is flawed but conversation is valuable
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has not endorsed the Fairness for All Act, and BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman noted what she considers serious deficiencies in the legislation.
However, she applauded the effort to advance “both nondiscrimination and religious liberty” and holding conversations “to explore prospects for understanding and common ground.”
“It offers one approach to bridging the divide—a complex piece of legislation to avoid ‘winner-take-all’ legislation that many believe is likely to deepen and prolong conflict,” Hollman wrote.
She acknowledged the difficulty when principles of nondiscrimination and religious liberty come into conflict.
“As BJC has consistently observed, conflicts between LGBTQ rights and religious objections to same-sex marriage have had a severe impact on the public’s understanding of and support for religious liberty,” she wrote. “In many cases, advocates have failed to recognize the interests of those they deem ‘on the other side.’ Whether dedicated to protecting LGBTQ rights or religious liberty, this failure has exaggerated conflicts.”
The Fairness for All Act “seeks to break through the impasse” by directly addressing specific categories of conflict and offering proposed compromises, Hollman observed.
“It responds to concrete examples where conflicts occur and provides exemptions to meet specific religious needs,” she wrote.
However, it offers broad exemptions for religious entities “without regard to whether they receive public funding and would be subject to public expectations of nondiscrimination,” which she called a “glaring deficiency” in the legislation.
“Still, it is important to note what is new in the debate. Advocates for national LGBTQ protections and advocates for religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage worked together to draft legislation in response to the needs of their communities and despite their critics. Their effort is worthy of consideration and continued conversation,” Hollman wrote.
“Conversations are crucial for all sides to understand our religious differences and find ways we can protect religious liberty for all.”