On Feb. 25, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act by a vote of 224 to 206. The bill amends federal civil rights laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity across a broad range of categories.
As Americans, we affirm that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it. More importantly, as Christians, we believe that God created all people in His image (Genesis 1:27) and loves and cherishes them (John 3:16).
Regrettably, the Equality Act as currently drafted undermines the equality of religious people, undercutting our ability to act consistently with our sincerely held beliefs, including beliefs regarding the sanctity of life.
Three Ways to Respond
So, how should Assemblies of God ministers, churches and ministries respond?
1. 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 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.”
2. It is essential that we maintain Christlike love for all people — especially those 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 it is by grace that we are saved through faith, not of ourselves, but as a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8–10).
3. Exercise your privileged opportunity as an American citizen to contact your state’s two senators by email, phone or letter and ask them to oppose passage of the Equality Act. You can find contact information for them here.
Reasons to Oppose the Equality Act
In consultation with religious freedom advocates and litigators, I believe there are fundamental problems with the Equality Act that should lead us to oppose it.
When the 2019 version of the Equality Act passed the House by a vote of 236–173, I used this space to express a number concerns. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 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. He emphasized 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.” As I have noted in the past, the Equality Act ill-advisedly 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.
If anything, my concern stands in even sharper relief against the backdrop of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia. In that case, the Court ruled that the term “sex” in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status.
Dissenting from the majority opinion, Justice Alito noted that this reinterpretation of the meaning of “sex” could not help but have serious consequences for religious freedom. He anticipated, and the majority agreed, that in the aftermath of Bostock the Court would be asked to resolve numerous conflicts at the intersection of First Amendment free exercise rights, and the newly interpreted provision of Title VII. The Equality Act not only expands the range of issues over which such conflicts will arise, but it also changes the legal standard under which they will be decided, in a way that dramatically weakens existing religious freedom protections.
A few examples show how this is the case.
Under the Equality Act, statutory protections against “pregnancy discrimination” are rewritten in a way that could undo current state and federal limitations on taxpayer funding of abortion. Moreover, these same provisions will undercut long-standing conscience protection rights for hospitals and medical professionals who decline to perform abortions. As the National Right to Life Committee noted in a February 2021 statement opposing the Act, “In short, the Equality Act 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.)
Currently, every federal action that substantially burdens religious freedom is subject to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects the religious exercise of individuals and institutions. The Equality Act removes these protections so that those 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.”
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 schools and 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. Indeed, the Act is so punitive that it would strip access to free and reduced lunch from hundreds of thousands of children who attend religious schools.
Given these concerns, I hope you see why I believe passage of the Equality Act requires that Christian citizens take action immediately.
A Call to Prayer
In conclusion, I would like to invite you to join me in prayer in the coming days.
• Pray that we would unconditionally accept and embrace the Word of God as our final authority on these matters.
• Pray that we would be living examples of walking in holiness and righteousness to the next generation of believers.
• Pray for the members of the U.S. Senate who will be reviewing this bill, that they will uphold the well-established precedent of the free exercise of religion in our nation.
Finally, I remind you that regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., our ultimate hope lies above:
All nations will remember the LORD.
From every part of the world they will turn to him;
all races will worship him.
The LORD is king,
and he rules the nations (Psalm 22:27-28, GNT).