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How Should We Respond to the Equality Act?

As the U.S. House of Representatives sends the "Equality Act" to the Senate, AG leaders encourage prayer.
On May 17, the U. S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act by a vote of 236-173. The bill amends federal civil rights laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity across a broad range of categories. Regrettably, it is drafted in a way that seriously undercuts the ability of faith-based organizations and individuals to live consistently with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

How should Assemblies of God ministers, churches, and ministries respond?

First, we must unconditionally accept God’s Word as our final authority. As Article 1 of our Statement of Fundamental Truths puts it: “The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct.” God’s Word is the only source that won’t lie to us. With regard to human sexuality, we believe that the “consistent ideal for sexual experience in the Bible is chastity for those outside a monogamous heterosexual marriage and fidelity for those inside such a marriage.”

Second, we must always keep our words and our actions seasoned with the Spirit of Jesus. This is true in every dimension of life, guiding how we minister to others as well as how we speak in the public square about controversial social and political issues. Anytime Christ’s followers resort to name-calling or harassment or hatred, the spread of the gospel is compromised.

Third, it is absolutely essential that we maintain Christlike love for all people — especially those people who are trapped within lifestyles and choices we believe to be eternally destructive. And the biblical concept of love goes beyond mere words to include concrete actions. We must never forget that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, not of ourselves, but as a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-10).

These principles are true and should guide our behavior, regardless of whether the Equality Act becomes law. As debate about it now moves to the U.S. Senate, however, we believe it is important to speak clearly about aspects of the bill that cause grave concern. In consultation with religious freedom advocates and litigators, we believe these are the fundamental problems with the Equality Act that should lead us to oppose it.

In the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell opinion that created a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy was careful to make it clear that those who hold to traditional views of human sexuality are not thereby engaged in unjust discrimination. Instead, he wrote that that such views may “be held in good faith by reasonable and sincere people.” He went on to emphasize that those who are compelled by faith or conscience to object to evolving social opinions about human sexuality must be given “proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and central to their lives and faith, and to their deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.” Whatever one may think of the rest of Kennedy’s opinion, here he stood up for the kind of robust pluralism so critical to living peaceably in a diverse society. Ill-advisedly, the Equality Act stands Kennedy’s admonitions on their head. It instead establishes a legal structure that would punish people who simply wish to live their lives and serve their communities in a manner consistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Currently, every federal action that substantially burdens religious freedom is subject to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has a strict scrutiny test that protects the religious exercise of individuals and institutions. The Equality Act removes these protections in its provisions: “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 … 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.” The unconscionable result is that areas of law where encroachment on religious freedom are most likely would also become areas where religious freedom is least protected. As noted legal scholar Douglas Laycock put it, the Equality Act is “not a good-faith attempt to reconcile competing interests. It is an attempt by one side to grab all the disputed territory and to crush the other side.”

A few examples show how this is the case. The bill includes a new definition of “public accommodation” that could make churches subject to government regulations regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. States with similar laws almost always make it clear that churches engaged in ministries such as pastoral counseling or hosting food pantries are not considered public accommodations subject to discrimination laws. The Equality Act provides no such assurances. But if churches engaged in such ministries become public accommodations as far as the Equality Act is concerned, it’s not clear that they can continue to refuse to rent their facilities to same-sex couples for weddings.

Under current federal law, most small businesses owned by religious persons are excluded from the definition of a public accommodation. The Equality Act dramatically expands the kinds of establishments deemed public accommodations and the scope of conduct that is deemed discriminatory. This will result in more efforts to compel wedding vendors and others to provide services that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Religious colleges educate hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. who desire an academic environment that is supportive of their values. Such institutions are currently free to make hiring and other operational decisions that uphold their religious mission, and it is commonplace for students at these schools to make use of federal student loans and grants. The Equality Act represents a direct attack on all of this. For many such schools — including the schools in the Assemblies of God Alliance for Higher Education — the inability of their students to participate in federal student aid programs would dramatically impact their ability to continue operating.

Under the Equality Act, faith-based service organizations — like foster care agencies, domestic violence shelters, and countless others — that receive even a small amount of federal funds would be required to adopt the government’s new standards everywhere in their operations. This would apply even to separate services that are privately funded. A small Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to help such an agency recover from a disaster so that it could get back to serving the community would be enough to trigger the Act’s provisions.

The Equality Act also threatens the conscience rights of medical professionals in relation to abortion and other ethically sensitive medical procedures. As the National Right to Life Committee noted in opposing the Act, as written the bill “may be construed to create a right to demand abortion from health care providers and destroy conscience protections.” No doctor, nurse or health care facility should ever face the risk of government sanction for declining to participate in the taking of innocent human life. (Read about the Assemblies of God’s position on abortion here.)

To date, only the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Equality Act. Many political observers express confidence that the proposed legislation will not pass the Senate. But the fact that 236 members of the House voted in favor of a bill that poses such dramatic threats to religious freedom serves as a stark reminder that we live in difficult times, where diligence will be required to defend our most cherished rights.

In the coming days, will you join us in prayer?

• Pray for a spiritual awakening in our nation that will draw churches and society closer to God as the only solution to the needs we face.
• For the members of the U.S. Senate who will be reviewing this bill, pray they will uphold the well-established precedent of the free exercise of religion in our nation.
• Pray that the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) will season our speech online and in public forums as we address these critical issues.

May the Church rise to be the life-giving salt and light that Jesus has commanded us to be.

Doug Clay and George P Wood

Doug Clay is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God (USA).

George P. Wood is executive editor of Assemblies of Publications and coordinator of Religious Freedom Initiatives for the Assemblies of God (USA).