Richard Doerflinger
A More Human Society
July 31, 2019 // A more human society

A threat to civil rights

Richard Doerflinger
A More Human Society

I want to talk about the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5) approved by the House of Representatives this spring. But first a disclaimer.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms that homosexual acts are not morally acceptable — and it teaches that men and women with homosexual tendencies “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” avoiding “unjust discrimination in their regard” (No. 2357-8). We must respect and reach out to sinners and those tempted to sin? Yes, or there’d be no “we” left.

The Equality Act has been hailed as a measure to prevent such discrimination. But for four reasons, it may pose the most serious threat to civil rights ever passed by a chamber of Congress.

First, it threatens the right to life and the right of conscientious objection. It amends laws against sex discrimination, defining “sex” to include “pregnancy … or a related medical condition.” Such language was used in the past to demand that institutions receiving federal funds provide abortions and abortion coverage.

Congress has therefore amended such laws with “abortion-neutral” language to prevent this outcome, as in the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988. H.R. 5 omits that clarification. Declining to perform abortions would be illegal discrimination. Even long-standing state and federal laws against using tax dollars for abortion could be attacked.

Second, H.R. 5 undermines the rights of women. Title IX of the Education Amendments has long required educational institutions to provide equitable support for women’s as well as men’s athletic teams.

But H.R. 5 requires the law to treat a person’s self-assigned “gender identity” as that person’s sex. So a school can simply field two men’s teams, one of which consists of men who identify as women. Already biological males are winning female wrestling and racing tournaments, enjoying the advantages of a male physique and physiology.

Some House members tried to amend H.R. 5, so it would not diminish protections for women under title IX. Their motion was rejected 228 to 181.

Girls and women have also been able to expect some regard for their privacy, and their safety from male predators. But H.R. 5 insists that men who identify as women must have complete access to girls’ and women’s locker rooms, restrooms and dressing rooms.

Third, H.R. 5 nullifies religious freedom, a right on which our nation was founded. The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Clinton in 1993, is explicitly overridden by the requirements of H.R. 5.

Even Catholic hospitals may be forced to provide abortions; even devout Christians will have to recognize and accommodate same-sex marriage, since H.R. 5 labels resistance to that idea as a discriminatory “sex stereotype.”

The fourth aspect of H.R. 5 is the most sweeping. To be sure, the bill does define “sex” to include “a perception or belief, even if inaccurate,” concerning someone’s sex. But it also broadly applies this philosophy that people are whatever they say they are, by redefining “race,” “color,” “handicap” and other categories.

Laws forbidding discrimination against an individual “because of such individual’s race” must forbid discrimination because of such individual’s “perception or belief, even if inaccurate,” regarding his or her race. It seems a scholarship program required to be equally available to black students could comply with the law by admitting white students who identify as black.

By making objective reality irrelevant to civil rights laws, H.R. 5 weakens protection for those who have been able to rely on those laws in the past. I am astonished that it was supported by all House Democrats — and eight Republicans. Perhaps the Senate will have more sense.

Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.

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