Faith Leaders Divided Over Equality Act And LGBTQ Rights Some religious groups fear the Equality Act could undermine the freedom to exercise traditional faith beliefs. Other denominations say anti-LGBTQ discrimination cannot be tolerated.

Some Faith Leaders Call Equality Act Devastating; For Others, It's God's Will

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With Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate, advocates for LGBTQ rights have new hopes for the Equality Act. That bill, which passed the House last month, would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Senate consideration is focusing on whether the bill limits the right of faith groups to uphold their religious beliefs. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, same-sex marriage was unheard of. Since then, public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of LGBTQ rights. Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline is the lead Equality Act sponsor in the House.

DAVID CICILLINE: This is going to be a vote that's going to be remembered in the history books, and I think people are going to want to be on the right side of history.

GJELTEN: But many faith groups still hold conservative ideas about marriage and sexuality and fear the Equality Act could be used to punish them - among them, the National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Bishops, Orthodox Jews, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Seventh-day Adventists. Shirley Hoogstra is president of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities.

SHIRLEY HOOGSTRA: The Equality Act, as written, actually is devastating to the institutions that I represent.

GJELTEN: Existing law says schools that get federal funding can't engage in racial discrimination. The Equality Act would extend that to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. But many religious schools insist that students abide by strict moral codes pertaining to sexual conduct. Critics of the Equality Act say it would mean those students could lose access to government aid. Todd McFarland, who attended Southern Adventist University, is now associate general counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

TODD MCFARLAND: You know, I couldn't have gone to Southern Adventist University without student loans, which I'm still paying off. The threat is there that we will lose that funding and the ability of our students to get Pell Grants, to get student loans.

GJELTEN: Given the depth of opposition, Shirley Hoogstra thinks Democrats may soon rethink their support for the bill.

HOOGSTRA: We're going to have Democrats who say, I've got religious people; I've got Christian colleges, and I'm not going to pass a draconian bill.

GJELTEN: Hoogstra's group supports an alternative bill, the Fairness for All Act, which also extends anti-discrimination protections, but with more religious exemptions. But Congressman Cicilline says civil rights law already includes exemptions. Institutions with a proven commitment to their beliefs, he says, should be OK.

CICILLINE: The determination would have to be made as to whether or not the decisions they are making are connected to their religious teaching and connected to their core function as a religious organization, or is it a pretext to discriminate?

GJELTEN: That determination would presumably be made by courts. And one provision of the Equality Act says institutions cannot cite the existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act to justify discriminatory policies. Todd McFarland, the Seventh-day Adventist lawyer, says religious schools could face expensive legal fights.

MCFARLAND: We also don't think judges are the right people to do this. We think that the legislative body should draft a law that is, in fact, constitutional.

GJELTEN: Meaning, he says, one that would uphold the right to free exercise of religion. Some faith groups, including mainline Protestants, favor the Equality Act. Retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, himself an openly gay man, likes to quote Jesus at his Last Supper, telling his disciples that the Holy Spirit will lead them to truths they cannot yet bear to hear.

GENE ROBINSON: And the question I always ask my brothers and sisters in the conservative denominations is, could it be that God is leading us into a deeper truth about gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender people?

GJELTEN: Some faith groups that now support the Equality Act previously had more skeptical understandings of LGBTQ rights. Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, who leads an association of rabbis in the conservative tradition, says his movement in recent years has reconsidered its views on sexuality and gender identity.

JACOB BLUMENTHAL: We basically looked at the traditions and began to understand that the Jewish value of Kevod HaBeriyot - it's the dignity of every individual - is equal to or even takes precedence over some of our older traditions around attitudes towards homosexuality.

GJELTEN: In fact, religious beliefs do change. In the end, it's that evolution that may be most important for the promotion of LGBTQ rights.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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