CPJ and IRFA statement on the House of Representatives passage of the Equality Act

Issued February 25, 2021

Today the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act (H.R. 5) on a 224 to 206 vote. The Act has the very good intention of securing the basic civil rights of LGBTQ people throughout our nation. We support changing federal civil rights law to extend civil rights protections for this purpose. However, as written, the Equality Act would achieve this important goal while grievously--and unnecessarily-- undermining the rights and freedoms of many citizens. We believe a pluralist approach is the best way to ensure all citizens and organizations, regardless of their core convictions, identities, and values, retain their rights and freedoms.


Legislators must significantly amend the Equality Act before Congress sends it to the President. Even better, Congress should adopt the Fairness for All Act, soon to be reintroduced into Congress, which expands LGBTQ rights while broadly protecting religious freedom.  Faith-based organizations of all kinds—houses of worship, religious charities, religious schools and colleges, faith-based health care providers, faith-shaped companies— and the individuals they serve are our focus here. These organizations are expressions of religion in life and in society: they are constitutionally protected exercises of religion. And their existence as distinctively religious organizations is vastly important in our society as they serve the communities around them and shape their members to serve the common good.


The Equality Act would expand federal civil rights law by prohibiting discrimination based on  sexual orientation and gender identity. Several elements of the bill  arguably do not fit in civil rights law. For example, the current form of this bill would add new protections for elective abortions and access to contraceptives. 


Beyond that, core elements of the bill will severely damage faith-based organizations. Most egregiously, the Equality Act as written would, for the first time, shrink the protective scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA is the premier statutory protection for the religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment and was passed with near-unanimity by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton to great acclaim in 1993. The proposed changes to RFRA would deny persons and organizations who are living out their religious beliefs but are charged with illegal discrimination any recourse to ask a court to balance the several important conflicting rights.


An unamended Equality Act will also apparently reclassify houses of worship as public accommodations, subjecting them to requirements that may violate their core religious beliefs. Faith-based adoption and foster care providers committed to traditional marriage will be excluded from federal funding and may lose their ability to serve--at a time when we need more providers, not fewer. Many homeless or domestic violence shelters, even the privately funded, may be compelled to close their doors, because of the bill’s requirements. Religious colleges and universities with beliefs and values concerning human sexuality that differ from the unamended Equality Act will lose the freedom to hire staff and faculty consistent with those beliefs and their students will lose access to government aid. 


These and other detrimental consequences—restrictions on institutional and religious freedom, the constriction of the freedom to serve of many religious people and organizations—are avoidable and must be avoided.


The Fairness for All Act (H.R. 5331 in the last Congress; soon to be introduced into the current Congress) shows how to expand federal civil rights laws to protect LGBTQ persons and religious freedom and faith-based organizations simultaneously. Modifying the Equality Act to align with the pluralist goals and provisions of the Fairness for All Act would recognize and protect the important rights and freedoms of LGBTQ persons and religious persons and organizations.