The Equality Act’s Attack on Religious Freedom and Charity

By Jeff Myers Published on April 30, 2021

Pay close attention as the Senate considers taking up HR5, the deceptively-named “Equality Act.” It’s getting a soft-sell from its sponsors as a harmless way to include LGBTQ people under federal civil rights protections. In reality, HR5 undoes the work of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and creates breathtaking new levels of discrimination. In other editorials, I’ve talked about how HR5 hurts women and racial minorities. Now we’ll talk about how it harms religious freedom.

How HR5, the “Equality Act,” Damages Religious Freedom

In the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, religious freedom is the first right protected. It is mentioned before freedom of speech or the press or the right to freely assemble. This right was more recently codified into current law during President Clinton’s administration through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA says that religious freedom must be protected by the federal government except in extreme cases where the government has a compelling interest in restricting it — for example if a religious group calls for violence against the citizenry — and it must do so by the least restrictive means.

In reality, HR5 undoes the work of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and creates breathtaking new levels of discrimination.

But HR5 specifically removes this protection of religious freedom. It says that there is no good reason to oppose the government’s definition of sexual orientation and gender identity, whatever those definitions turn out to be. If a man who believes he is a woman wants to live in the women’s dormitory at a Christian college, he must be allowed to do so, or the college will be punished. If a homeless man claiming to be a woman wants to shower in the locker room of a women’s shelter, he must be allowed to do so, or the shelter will be punished.

The language contained in the Equality Act targets traditional religions such as Christianity. As theologian Andrew Walker puts it, “the Equality Act equates Christian ethics with hatred and bigotry.” Other religions are also concerned about HR5. The Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV), representing over 1500 traditional, Orthodox rabbis, says that in HR5, by definition, a person is bigoted if he holds to traditional Jewish beliefs. It says, “the law even explicitly rejects religious freedom as a defense, meaning it provides Anti-Semites with a new way to persecute the religious Jewish community.”

Why You Should Care About Religious Freedom Even If You’re Not Religious

Many fail to understand what has got Christians, Jews, and others so upset. “You can still go to religious services,” they say. “What are you complaining about?”

But religious freedom is more than the freedom to worship. It is the freedom to believe and to practice religion in every area of life. It is why America’s founders enshrined religious freedom in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. They weren’t trying to protect the people from one another; they were trying to protect the people from intrusive government action that violates the conscience.

Restricting religious freedom leads to the decay of all freedoms. Countries with the highest restrictions on religion are also the worst violators of political and economic freedom. According to sociologists Dr. Brian Grim and Dr. Roger Finke’s research, there is a direct link between governmental and social restrictions on religion and religious persecution and conflict. Government restriction on religion sends signals to anti-religious groups that they are free to attack those with whom they disagree.

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But in contrast, strong protection of religious freedom makes nations better. Grim and Finke’s research also found that commitment to religious freedom related to economic development, political freedom, civil liberties, gender empowerment, reduction of poverty, and the stability of government. This is further supported by religious freedom scholar Dr. Timothy Shah’s research — religious freedom allows religious people to promote economic development, provide health services, stimulate close-knit community, exercise charity, and develop networks and associations that promote the well-being of all.

Take charity for example. More than 70 million Americans are helped by services offered by faith congregations. According to a recent study, the value of these services and the contributions that fund them is $378 billion, more than the combined global revenues of Apple and Microsoft put together. If you take direct contributions, services, economic contribution of businesses with religious roots, and economic contribution of religiously motivated citizens, the value could be as high as $4.8 trillion a year, which is one-third of the value of the entire economy.

Yet HR5 would be a government-sanctioned green light for anti-religious groups to harass and litigate against the very religious organizations and charities that form the core of our society.

The Attacks Are Already Beginning

Anticipating the passage of HR 5, a group called the “Religious Exemption Accountability Project” has already filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to end the religious exemption of Christian institutions of higher education. If successful, this suit would prevent low-income students at such institutions from receiving federally guaranteed student loans and grants.

HR 5 dismisses sincerely-held religious beliefs and defines them as bigotry. Its passage would threaten the non-profit tax exemptions of hundreds of thousands of churches, religious charities, and educational institutions, and encourage a flood of social sanctions and litigation across the country.

What Should We Do?

Obviously, we ought to communicate with our elected officials to let them know that however well-intentioned, an act as divisive and unclear as HR 5 should not become law.

But at a deeper level, we need to ask ourselves what kind of nation we want to be and what steps we should take to accomplish that.

First, we must relearn the art of disagreement. Rights are hardly necessary if everyone agrees. It is precisely for situations like this that our founders established the first freedom of religious liberty. It makes things better for everyone, even those who think of themselves as non-religious.

Second, we must leave the name-calling behind. Shaming doesn’t produce positive change in the long run. Calling people bigots or trying to cancel them turns us into the very kind of intolerant people we say we despise.

Third, we must seek truth. Truth exists and can be known. It’s not easy, but it is essential if we are to ever put the “civil” back in civil rights, or in civil society.


Dr. Jeff Myers is President of Summit Ministries and host of The Dr. Jeff Show.

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