Black pastors signal a letter wherein they help a draft compromise on LGBTQ equality

(RNS) – Fifty-seven black Christian leaders have written a letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing support for the expansion of LGBTQ rights but asking for a new bill that includes religious exemptions.

The signatories, including representatives of major black Christian denominations, said the passage of the Equal Opportunities Act would withhold federal funding for faith-based programs that profess a traditional view of sexuality. For example, it would end free and low-cost lunch programs for children attending religious schools and revoke federal loan eligibility for tens of thousands of students attending hundreds of religious colleges.

“… We would like to clearly express our support for federal protection for LGBT people in employment, living and the like,” says the letter. “We are determined to accept these safeguards and stand up for them. Unfortunately, the collaborative process and substance of the Equal Opportunities Act are far below the standard required to maintain a healthy pluralistic society. “

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The Equality Act, passed by the Democratically controlled US House of Representatives on February 25, would amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It does not contain any exceptions for religious groups and would override the Law to Restore Religious Freedom, which prohibits the federal government from “placing significant charges” on the practice of religion by individuals unless there is an overriding government interest.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the Equal Opportunities Act on Wednesday (March 17). Despite widespread support from the Democratic Party, the bill in its current form is unlikely to stand a chance in the Senate as it takes 10 Republican Senate votes to repel a GOP filibuster.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, center, speaks on the Equality Act on February 25, 2021, from left with Sen. Cory Booker, DN.J .; Sen. Jerry Nadler, DN.Y .; Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore .; Rep. David Cicilline, DR.I .; Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis .; and Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader, DN.Y., on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin)

The faith leaders are advocating a rival bill called Fairness for All, which provides comprehensive protection for LGBTQ people while providing exemptions for religious institutions that hold traditional beliefs about marriage and sexuality. This bill, introduced in the US House last month, is based on the “Utah Compromise,” a state law from 2015 that strengthened religious freedom and protected LGBTQ people from discrimination.

The letter was written as part of the AND campaign, a Christian advocacy group that works to bring conviction and compassion to the public space. The group is led by Justin Giboney, an Atlanta attorney and political strategist who was a delegate to the 2012 and 2016 Democratic National Convention.

“We want to make it clear that we stand up for LGBTQ rights and want to stand up for them,” Giboney told the Religion News Service. “But we have to make it more thoughtful than the Equal Opportunities Act. Freedom of religion and LGBTQ rights are not necessarily in conflict. The Utah Compromise and fairness for all has shown us that. “

The letter is noteworthy because many evangelical and conservative Christians, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the United States Bishops’ Conference, reject the idea of ​​adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

Signatories include AR Bernard, pastor of a mega-church in Brooklyn and former evangelical advisor to former President Donald Trump (Bernard resigned from this unofficial board in 2017); Rev. Suzan Johnson-Cook, who served as ambassador for international religious freedom under former President Barack Obama; and Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The signatories said the Equal Opportunities Act was not the result of a collaborative process and excluded the voices of the faith leaders. (Several faith groups on the political left have advocated it.)

“The Equal Opportunities Act is a reflection of our broken system, not an example of the civil spirit and good faith action required to heal it,” the signatories said. In addition to threatening free lunch programs and Pell grants for religious institutions, pastors said the bill would convert places of worship and other religious items into public housing. This means that churches, for example, may be forced to rent out their facilities for same-sex weddings despite protesting the practice.

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