A Republican congressman has introduced a bill he positions as a compromise answer to the Equality Act -- but he doesn't expect it to pass, and it's getting criticism all across the political spectrum.
U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah introduced the Fairness for All Act Friday in the House. Like the Equality Act, it would amend existing civil rights law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But it would offer far broader exemptions for faith-based organizations and small businesses.
"All of God's children, regardless of sexual orientation or religion, deserve dignity, respect, and the right to pursue happiness," Stewart said in a press release. "This legislation allows us to settle the legal questions and get back to the business of loving our neighbors."
The bill would make changes to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, and other federal laws to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, just as the Equality Act would. The Equality Act, which has already passed the House but is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, includes limited religious exemptions.
The Equality Act would maintain an exemption allowing religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies to hire only individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with their religious activities. It would allow religious organizations or private clubs to limit rentals or services to their members. It would not regulate what ministers can say from the pulpit or require them to participate in any ceremony that goes against their beliefs. But it also makes clear that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not provide legal cover for discrimination.
The Fairness for All Act goes much further with religious exemptions. It would allow faith-based nonprofits an exemption, so that, for instance, an adoption or foster care agency receiving federal funds could turn away LGBTQ parents or others who pose a conflict with the agency's religious tenets, as long as they could be referred to another agency in their area. Hospitals could refuse to provide transition-related services. The legislation does not mention RFRA. And it exempts for-profit businesses with 14 or fewer employees from the sexual orientation and gender identity nondiscrimination provisions, although not from those involving discrimination based on race or other factors. This appears aimed at allowing vendors of wedding-related services to turn away same-sex couples.
"The Equality Act was written in such a way that a religious person like myself couldn't vote for it," Stewart, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told Christianity Today, a publication aimed at evangelicals. "[Democratic legislators] wrote it so that they could say to LGBT people, 'No Republican voted for it; they don't care about people like you,' which just isn't true."
He said he does not expect his bill to pass, but he doesn't see that as a reason not to introduce it. "Congress can be a frustrating place to be because it's so polarized," he told Christianity Today. "But I don't think we can throw up our hands and quit."
The LDS Church supports the legislation, as do some other religious groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The latter has been spearheading the development of the legislation for three years, Christianity Today reports.
But more conservative religious groups aren't jumping on the bandwagon. "Leaders from more than 90 evangelical groups signed a statement rejecting any legislation protecting sexual orientation or gender identity after the CCCU started to advocate for a Fairness for All law in 2016," the magazine notes. The 90 included leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family.
"Christians cannot support FFA for this overarching reason: it is grounded in an unbiblical conception of the human person," theology professor Owen Strachan wrote in September in The Public Discourse, a journal published by the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank. "The Scripture will not allow us to see any ungodly 'orientation' or 'identity' as essential to our humanity, as directed toward our flourishing, and thus enshrined in law as a protected category."
The legislation has the support of the American Unity Fund, which seeks to advance LGBTQ rights while maintaining what it considers to be conservative principles. But most LGBTQ rights groups say the bill is just a cover for discrimination.
"The 'Fairness for All' Act is anything but fair, and it certainly does not serve all of us," said a joint statement issued by a coalition of civil rights groups. "It is an affront to existing civil rights protections that protect people on the basis of race, sex, and religion and creates new, substandard protections for LGBTQ people with massive loopholes and carve-outs, and upends critical federal programs that serve children in need." Signatories include the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, Lambda Legal, National Black Justice Coalition, National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, National Women's Law Center, PFLAG National, Transgender Law Center, and several others.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a gay Democrat, also denounced the legislation. "Let's not be fooled -- the so-called 'Fairness for All Act' is an attempt to codify bigotry, plain and simple," he said in a written statement. "The House has already passed the Equality Act which will actually ensure equal protection under the law for LGBTQ Americans. This bill would to allow religious organizations and people to discriminate against LGBTQ communities. Legalizing discrimination against any person for their sexual orientation or gender identity is unacceptable and this bill should be seen for what it is -- a deliberate attempt to legalize prejudice."
Donald Trump has announced his opposition to the Equality Act, but a spokesman for the president indicated he may be open to the new legislation. "President Trump has protected human dignity, fought for inclusion, promoted LGBTQ Americans, and strongly protected religious freedom for everyone while in office," White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere told the Washington Blade. "The White House looks forward to reviewing the legislation."