For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

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The clause states that the religion law “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.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

In April, 84 leaders of Catholic, conservative Protestant and Orthodox Jewish agencies expressed alarm over the bill in letters to House committees (.pdf here). The heads of the three relevant committees of U.S. Catholic bishops signed those letters and separate March appeals to the House and Senate (.pdf here). These groups contend that the proposed law violates Bill of Rights guarantees of freedom of speech, association and religion. They believe the transgender provisions spurn privacy and safety concerns of girls and women, and professionals’ right to follow their moral convictions and “best medical judgment.”    

Ample material promoting the Democrats’ bill is posted by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Big business is a powerful factor.  HRC lists backing from 173 national corporations  from Airbnb to Zillow, including e.g. American and United Airlines, MasterCard and Visa, Coke and Pepsi, Macy’s and Target, Dow and Du Pont, G.E. and G.M., Hilton and Hyatt, I.B.M. and IKEA, Hershey and Mars, big oil, big pharma, big banks and, of course, the Northern California tech giants.  

 Adding to cultural clout, HRC reports an alliance with 364 national organizations, not just the American Civil Liberties Union or Planned Parenthood  but the American Bar Association, American Medical Association, AFL-CIO unions, NARAL and the National Organization for Women, the NAACP and Urban League  and the public school unions and associations. What will the Newspaper Guild do?

Notwithstanding the ban on religious-liberty claims, Equality Act passage is endorsed by the Episcopal Church, a United Church of Christ agency, non-Orthodox branches of Judaism and the Unitarian Universalist Association, alongside atheists, humanists and secularists.  

Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit is challenging the Trump administration’s new conscience policy reaffirming the right of medical institutions and workers to avoid  participation in abortion, assisted suicide or sterilization. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declares  that “these bigoted rules are immoral, deeply discriminatory and downright deadly, greenlighting open discrimination in health care against LGTBQ Americans and directly threatening the well-being of millions.”   

Upshot for journalism the next 19 months: Religious freedom claims, pitted against gay, transgender and abortion advocacy, were a sleeper factor in 2016 and will be for what looks to be another close election in 2020.

Since moderates and independents will decide who wins, note this April data point from Pew Research: 47 percent of citizens who identify with the political “center” want religion to gain a more prominent role in U.S. society.    

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