The argument against the Equality Act reveals the fallacy of ‘religious freedom’
Letter to the Editor | Monday, March 15, 2021
The Equality Act, simply put, amends the Civil Rights Act and other civil rights legislation in order to protect people against discrimination on the basis of sex or gender identity. The debate over adding this stipulation to federal anti-discrimination legislation had its roots in the 1920s with the proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was passed by Congress in the 1970s but never officially added to the Constitution. Much has been brought to light in society since the 1970s, such as the emergence of the gay liberation movement led primarily by transgender women of color, and more recently the #MeToo movement focusing on workplace harassment.
On a surface level, the passage of this act seems long overdue and like a great step in the right direction to protect women and those in the LBGTQ community. However, I was disappointed (although not surprised) to see the backlash from the religious right. Moreover, I was most shocked as to how thinly-veiled arguments for “religious liberty” justified blatant transphobia and homophobia.
The power of religion on a sociocultural level depends upon its interpretation. Although I am not one to espouse the so-called “democratic” values of the founding fathers, one clear emphasis embedded within the Bill of Rights is the separation of church and state. This is so important because certain interpretations of religion can be weaponized to commit horrible atrocities such as the genocide and enslavement of Indigenous peoples (by our “hero” Christopher Columbus, but I digress). Additionally, religion can be employed in a way to advance social justice; thus, it is all a matter of interpretation.
The beginnings of new conservatism began to emerge in the 1960s as a reaction to radical social movements. In the 1970s following Roe v. Wade, Jerry Falwell and other conservative leaders found a powerful voting bloc in white Evangelicals, which led to the creation of the “Moral Majority.” Thus began perhaps one of the most important voting demographic shifts in recent history. Although the primary voting bloc was evangelicals, the Moral Majority appealed to conservative Catholics particularly regarding new changes such as the legalization of abortion and the visibility of homosexuality. Thus, this new movement struck a real nerve in its religious justification for calls to return America to Christian values.
However, considering how certain interpretations of Christianity have been shown to be damaging, one can see the negative effects of this political unification of Church and state. For example, the Reagan administration failed to address the AIDS crisis because those affected were the most neglected by the Christian establishment: people who were gay, transgender, not white and/or drug addicts. Looking back, one can see the flaws in the common assertion of AIDS as a punishment from God; however, this recent phenomena shows how in the moment, flawed religious arguments can have true potential for injustice.
In returning to the argument of the Equality Act, many of the appeals against it seem to be centered on the “issue” of transgenderism in the public sphere. In similar ways to how the whole LGBTQ community was painted in the ’80s, conservatives have used fear-mongering to attach negative predatory stereotypes to transgender people, who are in reality disproportionately at risk to be victimized. Additionally, in similar ways to how homosexuality was originally viewed as a “choice,” the reality of being transgender or gender nonconforming has been twisted by rhetoric. For example, the idea that transgender women are merely “men who identify as women” and so forth invalidates the transgender experience, often excluding actual dialogue regarding the lived experiences of this community or considering valid research that has advanced knowledge of the subject. Additionally, many of these arguments seem to miss the implications of societal constructions in relation to sex and gender on one’s own identity. Who are we to invalidate a certain experience simply because we cannot relate to it?
Additionally, as someone with a non-straight sexuality, I am fed up with the rhetoric around homosexuality that has been shoved down my throat by certain members of the religious establishment. I distinctly remember going to a Steubenville Conference in high school and being told by speaker Jason Evert that people are only gay because they have “daddy issues” (not exactly what he said, but that was the gist). Additionally, we were advertised a book regarding a certain lesbian woman’s “transformation” to marrying a man and having a family, which praised suppression of one’s identity as the only way to live out an authentically Catholic life. Recently, the establishment of the Catholic Church has changed its rhetoric from homosexuality being a sinful choice to it being something that is a “struggle” or cross to bear that must not be acted upon for one’s entire life. As dangerous as this narrative is to many queer youth today growing up in the Catholic Church, how could anyone suggest that the perpetuation of these ideas by the state is a good idea?
Overall, the Equality Act is a long-overdue step in the right direction to protect the rights of those with identities that are often targeted by mainstream (particularly conservative religious) society. Additionally, the religious liberty argument, when in the wrong hands, is dangerous, as extremist interpretations can be applied to people who do not have any association with said religion. Some of these arguments cross into the even more extremist territory of white nationalism. This can be seen clearly in the Jan. 6 insurrection, which our University has truly failed to address in a meaningful way, from the presence of a Notre Dame flag to assertions of “biological differences between the races” by Instagram account AmericaFirstND. If Notre Dame were to oppose the Equality Act, our University would not only fail through inaction, but confirm its support of the dangerous fallacy of religious liberty.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.