As the Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the Equality Act, Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford laid out his case for opposing it on religious grounds.
The bill would amend the Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity while expanding the definition of public accommodations. Lankford said the new definition will cover churches in some cases and expose them to liability.
"Over the course of the last year, we’ve seen houses of worship across the country, including states represented by every single person on the judiciary committee, that have served as locations for COVID testing and vaccine distribution. They’ve provided food, clothing, rental assistance to those in need as they always do," Lankford said. "Under the Equality Act, all of those houses of worship would now be categorized as public accommodations as an establishment."
Lankford also opposes the Equality Act’s provision saying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be used as a defense against refusing someone service based on sincerely held beliefs. Opponents say the Equality Act’s changes will have effects like pushing religiously affiliated adoption agencies and shelters to close their doors.
"[The] Religious Freedom Restoration Act doesn’t pick winners and losers. It provides a balancing test. The government may burden someone else’s religious exercise only if the burden is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest," Lankford said.
Civil rights lawyer and Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said the Equality Act will restore RFRA to its original intent.
"It was not to be used as a sword to impose religious beliefs on others, but instead a shield against discrimination," David said.
Dr. Edith Guffey is conference minister for the United Church of Christ Kansas-Oklahoma Conference and mother of a transgender son. She said her son needs to carefully choose where they live based on the protections available. There are 27 states lacking LGBTQ non-discrimination laws.
Guffey’s stance is the law should treat everyone with dignity, no matter where they are.
"And maybe this seems so simple to me because I consider the merits of the Equality Act as an African American woman who knows all too well the impact and legacy of racial discrimination, and I also know how religion and faith were used to justify slavery," Guffey said.
The Equality Act passed the U.S. House last month. It will probably need some Republican support to pass the Senate, which it seems unlikely to get.