A group of black pastors and prominent Christian figures, including megachurch pastor A.R. Bernard and former NFL tight end Benjamin Watson, have signed onto a letter sent to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to the Equality Act.
Tuesday’s letter, sent the day before the committee held a hearing on a House-passed bill that would codify discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity into federal law, was spearheaded by the AND Campaign, a progressive civic engagement organization that highlights the voices of urban Christians.
"It's a danger not just to Christian institutions, but those belonging to our Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, and Muslim neighbors as well,” the letter reads. “We can defend the rights of the LGBT community without threatening religious communities.”
The letter was backed by 57 signatories who include former U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson-Cook, Pastor Bernard of Brooklyn’s Christian Cultural Center, Bishop Claude Alexander of The Park Church in North Carolina, John Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Maryland and respected public policy strategist Barbara Williams-Skinner.
In addition to the longtime NFL veteran and pro-life advocate Watson, the letter was also backed by former WNBA player Chantelle Anderson.
The signatories began the letter by stating their "support for federal protections for LGBT persons in employment, housing and the like." However, they maintained that the Equality Act, billed as a necessary measure to achieve that goal, falls "well beneath the standard necessary to cultivate a healthy pluralistic society."
Referring to the Equality Act as "a reflection of our broken system," the signatories warned about its implications, specifically that "it would remove many of the basic rights that allow religious organizations to operate according to the tenets of their faith."
Additionally, they predicted that the Equality Act would "allow LGBT rights to be used as a sword against faith institutions rather than a shield to protect the vulnerable."
"The Equality Act would likely revoke federal security, disaster relief, and school lunch money from thousands of religious schools, end federal partnerships with thousands of faith-based programs that serve the most vulnerable, revoke the Pell Grant and federal loan eligibility for tens of thousands of students that attend hundreds of religious colleges, [and] convert houses of worship and other religious properties into public accommodations, enmeshing them in constant litigation," the letter asserts.
"Black and Brown Christians worked too hard for the Civil Rights Act to have it revised in ways that would take away basic rights and funding from our communities. The Equality Act needlessly pits the concerns of diverse communities against each other.”
Justin Giboney of the AND Campaign, an advocacy group that works "to educate and organize Christians for civic and cultural engagement that results in better representation, more just and compassionate policies and a healthier political culture,” was among those who signed the letter.
In addition to outlining the shortcomings of the Equality Act, the signatories highlighted the Fairness for All Act as "a much more thoughtful and just way to protect our LGBT neighbors."
Describing the legislation as a "product of the faith community and LGBT community coming together and challenging themselves to find ways to co-exist and to promote tolerance" and "proof that religious liberty and LGBT rights are not mutually exclusive," they urged Congress to hold a debate and vote on the Fairness for All Act.
Introduced in the 116th Congress by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and cosponsored by eight additional Republicans, the Fairness for All Act aims to "prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; and to protect the free exercise of religion."
The bill never came up for a vote in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, which had already passed the Equality Act. Fairness for All was backed by groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
Stewart reintroduced the Fairness for All Act on Feb. 26, two days after the House passed the Equality Act. The bill has 20 cosponsors in the 117th Congress, all Republicans.
While the aforementioned group of black pastors and religious leaders support the Fairness for All Act, it has received criticism from both sides of the aisle.
Conservative groups have argued that despite its protections for religious organizations, the Fairness for All Act will still "codify a radical gender ideology" into law. Liberal groups such as the Human Rights Campaign contend that the Fairness for All Act only includes "substandard protections for LGBT people" and features "massive loopholes."
Although the Equality Act passed the House for a second time last month with relative ease, the legislation faces an uncertain future now that it sits in the Senate.
Unlike when the House passed the Equality Act in 2019, Democrats have a majority in the U.S. Senate, albeit a narrow one. Their 50-50 majority, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote, leaves them far short of the 60 votes required to pass the legislation.
Democrats have threatened to invoke the so-called "nuclear option" that would allow legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority to advance the Equality Act and other progressive legislation.
However, two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, have expressed their opposition to such a move, likely depriving the party of the votes necessary to abolish the 60-vote rule.
The Equality Act is expected to secure minimal, if any, support from Senate Republicans as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was the only member of her party to co-sponsor the legislation when it was unsuccessfully introduced in the upper chamber in 2019. However, Collins indicated that she would not co-sponsor the bill this time because she thought it "needed revision."
Manchin was the only Democrat who did not co-sponsor the Equality Act in the 116th Congress, alleging that it provides insufficient "guidance to the local officials who will be implementing it, particularly with respect to students transitioning between genders in public schools." Should both Manchin and Collins oppose the Equality Act, it would lack the necessary votes for passage even if the "nuclear option" was implemented.