How the Equality Act Could Affect Churches and Religious Organizations

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On February 25, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Specifically, the bill states that “existing federal statutes prohibiting sex discrimination in employment (including in access to benefits), healthcare, housing, education, credit, and jury service also prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.”

The Equality Act would amend Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to codify the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia that barring sex discrimination in the workplace also protects LGBTQ employees from being fired or disciplined based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The Bostock ruling specifically addressed hiring, firing, and disciplinary actions by employers. However, Title VII also prohibits employers from discrimination when it comes to the provision of “fringe benefits,” which have been defined by federal regulations to include “medical, hospital, accident, life insurance and retirement benefits; profit-sharing and bonus plans; leave; and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.”

While Title VII exempts religious organizations from the ban on religious discrimination in employment practices, these organizations are still subject to Title VII’s ban on employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, or sex, except when it comes to employment decisions that involve members of the clergy.

The Equality Act would expand Title VII protections for LBGT+ individuals beyond employment and housing, however. The bill has broadened the categories of protection to include federally funded program and “public accommodations” – e.g., retail stores, transportation providers, hospitals, shelters, public venues, and more.

The bill has been introduced in the Senate where its fate is unclear. The bill faces opposition from religious groups that see it as an infringement on religious freedom. Currently, there are no protections for religious freedom in the bill; language within the bill exempts it from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which means that if the Equality Act passes, it would not allow legal remedies for those claiming religious freedom violations under the law.

The Church Law Center of California advises churches and other nonprofits on how to protect themselves from risk while furthering their mission. Call us today at (949) 245-3177 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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