NOEL KING, HOST:
South Carolina is one of about two dozen states that have few or no laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. The Equality Act, which is now before the U.S. Senate, would change that. It would extend existing civil rights laws to include LGBTQ people, making discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation illegal. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen has been listening in to the debate about this.
VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Charleston native Tia Clark finds freedom pulling crab pots from a dock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)
HANSEN: The 41-year-old turned a coastal tradition into a thriving business, teaching tourists how to lure feisty blue crabs.
TIA CLARK: First crab. First crab of the season.
HANSEN: Clark never dreamed she could be her own boss.
CLARK: That came from my tough skin of being a Black gay female living in the South (laughter). I should say that.
HANSEN: She says discrimination is part of life in conservative South Carolina. Clark and her wife of 11 years, Katie Killham have learned to endure it.
KATIE KILLHAM: We just know that we're going to face those things, and they start to feel normal.
HANSEN: For instance, they want children, but they're discouraged by cases of same-sex couples turned away from adoption and foster care agencies. The Equality Act could be life-changing.
KILLHAM: I think I would be willing to take on a foster care agency rather than just move on...
CLARK: Yeah, agreed.
KILLHAM: ...If I knew that they legally had to treat us like everyone else.
HANSEN: The act would not only ban federally funded agencies from discriminating against same-sex couples; it would also exclude religious beliefs as a rationale for discrimination.
DAVE WILSON: I think when you take religious freedom off the table, you're really kind of giving the Constitution the finger.
HANSEN: Dave Wilson is the president of the conservative religious Palmetto Family Council. He says the Equality Act violates First Amendment rights.
WILSON: Because I want my religious freedom, my ability as a Christian to be respected just as much as a transgender person wants to be respected as choosing to be transgender.
HANSEN: Transgender people say it's not a choice; it's who they are. And many faith groups support LGBTQ rights. Claire Wofford is a political scientist at the College of Charleston. She says the act could lead to a flurry of lawsuits where discrimination is quietly tolerated.
CLAIRE WOFFORD: And so in South Carolina and other Southern states like us, you are potentially on a collision course between equality and religious liberty.
HANSEN: Wofford says that's an issue judges will likely decide, and she points to precedents where courts exclude religion as a defense for race-based discrimination.
WOFFORD: What I'm saying is that in certain instances, the government interest is so important that it outweighs the right to religious liberty.
HANSEN: So does the government have a compelling interest to protect LGBTQ individuals? Chase Glenn says yes. He is the executive director of a Charleston-based advocacy group and a married transgender man with children.
CHASE GLENN: I think there's an emotional toll that many LGBTQ people have experienced and carry with them.
HANSEN: Glenn is watching a slew of anti-LGBTQ measures in state legislatures. One in South Carolina would remove people like him from a hate crime bill.
GLENN: It's the worry of, like, well, what if I am discriminated against? What if someone does find me out?
HANSEN: Glenn says such attempts are proof his community needs cohesive federal civil rights protection.
For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Charleston.
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